By J. Gregory Gerdel and Johanna Nichols
An announcement from Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy that city staff members displaced by the July flood may not leave their temporary offices at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC) until May 2025 clearly compounded existing frustration among MSAC members, who spoke up about it at a public meeting last week.
As a follow-up to town hall discussions in August about the future of MSAC, the center’s advisory council met on Tuesday, Sept. 12, with city staff members and six longtime members of the center who are not happy with the city’s plan for MSAC, which is located at 58 Barre Street, within walking distance of downtown.
Concerns raised by MSAC members at the earlier meeting include:
Restoring a full-time director position.
Displacement of MSAC programs by relocating city staff members to the senior center because of flood damage at City Hall.
Further loss of membership, classes, and field trips.
Loss of community meals and physical training workshops.
Murphy is preparing an assessment of MSAC’s programs and budget with a group including Todd Provencher, Tina Muncy, and Montpelier’s director of recreation and senior services, Arne McMullen. Murphy expects this audit to be completed by the end of December. The announcement of “next steps” will come in January, Murphy said, adding that “The goal is an economically viable, sustainable, and thriving senior center.”
Membership in MSAC has fallen from 1,125 in fiscal year 2021 to 757 in FY 2023, according to a report the city released in August. The decline is largely attributed to the COVID pandemic. Enrollment for fall courses is at 411 currently, just 24% of the 1,700 people McMullen said the courses can accommodate.
Asked why, of the buildings owned by the city, the senior center’s classrooms have been selected for interim relocation of city staff members, Murphy said city offices must meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to be eligible for restorative funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While Lost Nation Theater and some offices in city hall will be reopened sooner, the building’s elevator was seriously damaged during the flood, Murphy said. Also, the MSAC building is connected to the city’s computer system, so displaced staff members have been able to plug in seamlessly, Murphy said.
McMullen added that the Recreation Building directly across Barre Street from the MSAC is not accessible by ADA standards, but that a ramp for access to the building could be considered. “A study about the (potential) use of the Rec Building is out, but not ready,” he said.
Classes at Country Club Road?
The city’s purchase of the Country Club Road property may be able to provide accessible space for MSAC classes and workshops, McMullen said. That building is also being evaluated as a possible emergency winter homeless shelter. “The area the senior center could use is well-separated from the proposed homeless shelter,” he said.
However, McMullen said the Country Club Road building was recently discovered to have a serious mold problem. That will have to be addressed before it can be used for anything, he added.
Bob Kinzel asked if the city’s use of the senior center is a “done deal?” Murphy said that 18 to 20 city staffers have been stationed in what were formerly MSAC classrooms. Dianne Maccaro, chair of the MSAC advisory council, remained concerned about the loss of space. “We can’t grow membership without programs, and we don’t have our own space for programs,” she said.
Another concern is the registration process for upcoming winter classes, which have a Nov. 10 deadline. Tom Leahy, who had been managing the registration process, left his position at MSAC.
McMullen responded that several people on his staff are familiar with the RecTrak software program or can be trained to use it. He said the system, which is used for the Recreation Department’s programs, provides all the details the MSAC registrations will require, including payments and receipts.
Several people questioned the proposed location of classes at the Country Club Road property — nearly two miles from downtown.
In addition to possible service by Green Mountain Transit vans, McMullen said the recreation department has an accessible van that could be used to provide transportation to the Country Club Road facility. “The site also has ample parking,” he also noted, in contrast to the much smaller parking lot at the current MSAC location.
Reversing the Membership Decline
In addition to McMullen’s suggestion that “word of mouth” can be an effective way to generate interest about activities and programs, those attending the discussion thought several other communication strategies should be employed:
Having instructors contact previous enrollees.
Emailing current and previous MSAC members.
Setting up a volunteer phone bank to call people who have dropped their MSAC membership since the pandemic.
Using Front Porch Forum and other media to reach both Montpelier residents and those in the surrounding communities.