Home Commentary Montpelier Seniors Want Their Center Back, and a Dedicated Director, Too

Montpelier Seniors Want Their Center Back, and a Dedicated Director, Too

Jean Olson draws a skate in a Montpelier Senior Activity Center drawing class. Courtesy photo.
By Jean Olson

Many supporters of the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC) are questioning why city officials are pursuing policies that will reduce the center’s ability to provide essential services to Montpelier’s older population in the future. And there’s a strong concern that city officials don’t fully appreciate the critical role that the center plays in providing important quality of life for hundreds of Montpelier residents.

At the heart of this issue is the city’s decision not to support a full-time director for the center and its decision to move as many as 18 employees into the MSAC facility — a move that will eliminate much of the center’s classroom space for at least a two-year period.

Both of these decisions will make it almost impossible for MSAC to regain the vibrant place in the Montpelier community that existed before the COVID pandemic.

At the start of a recent public meeting at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, Kelly Murphy, assistant city manager, announced city employees will be housed in the upstairs classrooms until May 2025. When members of the MSAC advisory committee and public attendees offered other options for the city to consider, such as upstairs in city hall, in the under-utilized Recreation Building, the Elks Club, or other city-owned properties, Murphy’s response was that it is much nicer for the city employees to be together.  The irony was not lost on the seniors who want their center back. They want to be together after the tumultuous past few years.

Seniors, who make up 40% of Montpelier’s population and are arguably the most diverse age cohort, want their center to thrive again. It was thriving until COVID-19. Memberships dropped from 1,189 to 1,125 during the pandemic. The center then struggled under leadership, selected by the city, which was focused on FEAST, the food program that grew in scope while the center memberships and congregate meals, a source of nourishing food and social companionship, withered. Without effective leadership, memberships continued to drop to 757, 64% of where the center was before the pandemic.

Now the city has decided to hire the current full-time recreation director to serve also as the full-time director of MSAC. This choice was announced, along with a city hiring freeze, following the two recent town hall sessions at MSAC where the number one request is for a dedicated, professional, experienced director with a passion for the needs of the senior population, from those who are physically and mentally active to those who are struggling with social isolation or disability in any area. 

This city decision may be based, in part, on the concept of a larger department named Community Services, which was accepted by city council in 2016. Initially the council was told it would involve Parks, Recreation, MSAC, and potentially Cemeteries and be focused on sharing resources. Seven years later it involves just Recreation and MSAC, which have very little overlap in population or interest. As this idea struggles to find appropriate footing, it is time for the council to assess where the value lies. Seniors argue it is not in one director. 

It was an eye-opener for one attendee at this public meeting when he ventured upstairs to see the new city offices. Three employees in one room, two in the other, a working air conditioner, large desks and partitions offered by National Life, while seniors, whose home it is, sat downstairs with four non-working air conditioners while being offered class space at the environmentally compromised Elks Club, and a director whose sports background is barely useful. At the same time, seniors are being told by the city that MSAC needs to raise revenue with more classes and more memberships. Ironic.

Montpelier resident Jean Olson is a longtime member of the Montpelier Senior Activity Center and a former member of the senior center’s advisory committee.