After more than 40 years of providing activities for Clearwater's senior residents, the Senior Citizen Services' (SCS) center on Court Street was closed in September 2004. A monthly deficit of $25,000-$30,000 for several months was the reason given for the Board of Directors' action.
SCS members complained that they never received a letter stating the date of a general meeting or of the Board's decision. Those with crafts in the gift shop had two weeks to sell or remove their items. Many did not understand the need to discontinue programs and shutter the center. Some suggested closing only the gift shop, which caused the financial drain. Refunds on cancelled trips and membership dues were accepted.
When interviewed recently, Dr. William Hale, President of SCS, said, "The organization has not been dissolved. The Board of Directors remains intact. There is a reserve fund of approximately $3-million. The reserve plus the proceeds from future sale of the property will be used to fund services beneficial to seniors." Bob Wittenberg, who served as Executive Director, was unavailable for comment.
The Board originally intended to offer the 3-building complex for sale to Pinellas County. The 2-acre site was rumored to be a possible location for the expansion of its health department and a clinic. Listed for tax purposes at $1.2 million, the County Commission would have to approve the purchase, and financial support from the State would be necessary. The vacant buildings are not for sale at this time.
A canvass of seniors offered reasons for the demise of the center. By-laws allowed the board to make decisions without going before the membership. The steady decline of memberships over the last several years was not addressed. New board members and business strategies needed to be adopted. Some employees should have been replaced with volunteers to decrease the amount of the payroll. Marketing and merchandising in the gift shop was antiquated.
Other factors, also, contributed to the loss of revenue. The gift shop's location, which was set back from the road, was inconvenient. Daily sales continued to decrease annually. Construction on Myrtle Avenue and the causeway bridge rerouted traffic.
The SCS on Court Street was a private, non-profit organization for citizens 55 and over. Activities included card games, dances, sewing classes and travel tours. Members volunteered in the crafts and gift shop, which provided them with a means to earn extra money. The closing of the center left 2,600 seniors without a place of their own.
Participating in senior programs in adjacent communities can serve as an interim measure. Clearwater residents, however, will be charged a non-resident fee to join. City recreation centers and libraries can be asked to rearrange their schedules to provide space for activities and host social functions. But, these are temporary solutions.
Clearwater has the highest percentage of citizens 65 and over for any U. S. city with a population of more than 100,000. Mayor Frank Hibbard has recognized a need for a new senior facility in Clearwater and given it top priority. Hibbard would like to have funds set aside for a building that would be centrally located.
If city officials agree to buy or construct a building for the group, the city would assume sponsorship and fiscal responsibility. Money for a building would be just the beginning. More money would have to be found to pay for a director, staff, maintenance and utilities. Present Penny for Pinellas funds are allocated for other programs and not available.
Kevin Dunbar, Director of Parks & Recreation, said funds in the Parks & Rec budget are severely limited. If Penny for Pinellas is extended in 2010, some of the funds could be earmarked for a senior facility at that time. A site near the Lawn Bowling and Shuffleboard complex on North Fort Harrison Avenue is being considered.
Senior citizens of Clearwater want a place where they can congregate with friends. They want updated programs and activities that spark their interests. They want planned excursions. They want a calendar of social events. They want - and deserve - a center!
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