In Portsmouth, frustration and angst as senior center faces uncertain future
PORTSMOUTH — One of the most active senior centers in Rhode Island is facing an uncertain future, as fire code violations at its century-old, town-owned building have forced the center to substantially scale back activities at a time when members have been vaccinated and are ready to gather again.
Meanwhile, town leaders are trying to decide whether to renovate the former elementary school where the seniors have gathered for four decades, build a new center on the current five-acre site or find space elsewhere. The evolving situation has caused anxiety among the membership and, at times, put town officials on the defensive as they weigh their options.
“I’m very frustrated at where we are,” said Helen Mathieu, a former state senator who chairs the board of the nonprofit Portsmouth Multipurpose Senior Center. Mathieu’s mother helped found the organization in 1981. “I don’t think the town understands the sentiment and the feeling of the seniors.”
The center has a 20-year lease that doesn’t expire until 2034, with a $1 annual payment to the town for use of the old Anne Hutchinson Elementary School. Portsmouth is responsible for major repairs, but the center pays for its own utilities and has raised money over the years to do minor fix-ups, like painting.
Town Administrator Richard A. Rainer Jr. says he is acutely aware of the angst among the center’s membership.
“We have been portrayed as an administration that wanted to shut down the seniors,” Rainer said during a nearly hour-long interview with The Hummel Report. “If anything, we’ve done as much – or more – as any organization to try and fix this. Of course we have a responsibility to our seniors. As a matter of fact, the building is not shut down.”
The situation highlights the complexities of a nonprofit using a municipally owned building and the challenges of trying to fix the main problem: a lack of sprinklers. The state fire marshal gave the center a waiver in 2005 after a heightened focus on fire safety following the Station nightclub fire. The waiver, which followed a state inspection, came with a condition: that the center not use the second floor of the 15,000-square-foot building.
A follow-up inspection by the local fire marshal in 2019 found the second floor being used for storage by the senior center and other groups that utilize the building - in violation of the state’s order. That triggered a series of events over the past 18 months that has led to finger-pointing and some miscommunication about the future of the building and ultimately the organization.
A recently formed nonprofit, Friends of the Portsmouth Senior Center, has offered to raise the $400,000 it would take to install sprinklers. The town rejected the idea, in part because the center proposed overseeing the project and taking control of the building renovations from the town.
“We tried to fundraise,” said Nancy Howard, a member of the senior center friends group. “We had a plan and they didn’t want to hear it.”
Mary Ellen Martin, a Massachusetts attorney who grew up in Portsmouth, has also been working on behalf of the Friends of the Portsmouth Senior Center.
“The town is responsible for maintaining the building and any renovations that the town doesn’t want to take on, the senior center can,” she said.
She drafted a one-page memorandum of understanding for sprinklers that was ultimately rejected by the town solicitor.
The solicitor, Kevin P. Gavin, wrote to Martin on March 26: “I believe that the concept behind your proposed MOU between the Town and Friends is fatally flawed, from both legal and practical standpoints. For a number of reasons, it would not be appropriate for the Town to relinquish its authority and control over a Town-owned building, and essentially turn the building over to your organization to perform a public works construction project.”
Martin’s response during a recent interview: “My concern is that [the town] is going to dismantle the senior center and it’s going to dissolve.”
More than just a social club
The nonprofit began as a grassroots effort. While the town kicked in an initial $34,000 in 1981 for operating expenses and has continued with a yearly allocation, volunteers helped rehabilitate the former elementary school, reupholstering furniture and offering plumbing or electrical expertise. But the founders envisioned more than just a social club.
“They wanted it to be a multipurpose building, not just a place where elderly people visit or sit around,” Mathieu said. “They wanted to meet all of the needs: social, education, anything that was needed.”
In 2020, 28% of Portsmouth’s residents were 60 and older; 37% were 55 and older. As a result, membership has grown over the years, at one point peaking around 800. Right before the pandemic the senior center had 600 people who paid a $15 annual fee. The center this year will receive $85,000 from the town and $18,000 from the state. Mathieu said it also raises about $50,000 annually on its own.
The building is a hub of activity and continued to operate throughout the pandemic. The AARP uses the center to help prepare taxes for free; the Visiting Nurse Association offers a flu clinic; Child and Family Services brings in counselors to assist Medicare recipients in selecting supplemental insurance plans; reduced-price hot lunches before the pandemic available five days a week before going to box lunch pick up during the pandemic; a thrift shop helps raise $8,000 to $10,000 annually to support the center’s activities; and before the pandemic, quarterly dances also helped raise $1,000 per event. The center also serves as a town polling place.
After the 2019 inspection found that the center was improperly using the second floor, Rainer and the town’s fire chief met with the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal & Review in February 2020.
Rainer said he went into the meeting concerned that the state might shut down the center immediately because of the second-floor violation.
“We were going to have to offer up something – that is, what is our plan?” Rainer recalled thinking. “And what are we asking for? It’s kind of a roll of the dice. We didn’t know if we were going to walk out of that building with them telling us we’re not going to grant you any variances.”
He thought the chances of the state continuing to grant a sprinkler waiver were slim. While the town had corrected nearly two dozen lesser problems, it needed two other variances for more serious violations: inadequate headroom clearance at the front door and a duct violation in the kitchen.
“This just didn’t happen out of the blue,” he said. “The senior center has known, well before my arrival, that they weren’t supposed to be doing anything on the second floor. And they were.”
So Rainer made a preemptive strike, proposing at the meeting that the state give the town until June 30, 2021, before closing the building. Rainer told the council in late February: “This allows the Senior Center to continue using the building for another year. Over the next year, in conjunction with the Senior Center Organization, we will attempt to develop alternative courses of action for your consideration,” according to minutes from the meeting.
Mathieu takes issue with Rainer’s voluntarily offering in early 2020 to close the building in 18 months without consulting with the senior center.
“At the meeting, Mr. Rainer says the building will be empty as of July 1, 2021,” Mathieu said. “Based on what? The council never voted to tell them we’re closing the building. He felt like [the fire board] could have closed us up that day. I don’t think the board was going to blindside you that quickly.”
Developer's role raises suspicions
Two years ago the town commissioned a study of the condition of all town buildings. The report – issued in early 2019 – determined that sprinklers were not the only issue at Anne Hutchinson and that it would cost millions of dollars to rehabilitate the structure, which was built in 1925. Adding in the soft costs and inflation, Rainer said it would likely cost $5 million to fix a building that was worth just about that much.
“It’s not just putting in the sprinklers,” Rainer said. “Once you put in the sprinklers, we’re going to be forced to put them in throughout the entire building. Then there are other issues that need to be addressed. For example, wall repairs and we still have to address [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance and emergency egress.”
Rainer said he was introduced in 2019 to representatives of Church Community Housing Corporation, a Newport-based nonprofit organization that had developed 900 primarily low- and moderate-income homes and rehabilitated another 1,500.
The company asked if there was any land in Portsmouth available. Rainer met with the executive director, Christian Belden, several times over the next year to talk about some possibilities, including two to three acres that housed another vacant elementary school.
Late in 2020, Belden talked about potentially building a community center on the Anne Hutchinson site that would incorporate a senior center and/or low- to moderate-income housing. But, Rainer insisted it was a byproduct of ongoing discussions about getting more affordable housing in Portsmouth. He added that there was no scenario – as some in town believe – where the town was looking for a way to squeeze the seniors out of their building and bring in a developer.
“I said, ‘Let’s meet with them.’ It was never [just] about a senior center,” Rainer said. “Maybe there’s a possibility for some land in Portsmouth to be developed into senior housing. People think there’s a conspiracy, but it just happened all at the same time.”
Church Community Housing has talked about several options more recently, including building a new community/senior center again or rehabilitating the Anne Hutchinson building.
“Whether it’s a new building or a rehab of the Anne Hutchinson building – that creates its own concerns of parking and access – they would own the building and lease the land,” Mathieu said. “And that would mean that our landlord would be Church [Community] Housing and not the town of Portsmouth. Ten or 15 years from now, they could say, ‘Well now we need to charge rent for that place.’ Then the council says, ‘That’s not our problem, we give you funding.’ That worries me.”
So what is the immediate future of the center now that the June 30 deadline has passed? In March, with a looming deadline for closure and with no remediation in place, Rainer asked the town’s fire chief, Paul Ford, if the center could operate with reduced capacity.
On March 23, Ford sent Rainer a plan: the center could allow a maximum of 33 people in the building, in small groups spread across multiple rooms.
Mathieu said the center has explored renting space in other facilities – in Portsmouth and neighboring communities – to help in the meantime.
The town has several options to consider for the long term that include adding a bond issue for renovations at the senior center to a school referendum planned for the fall – or pursuing an agreement with Church Community Housing to build a community/senior center as part of a larger project.
What’s clear is that a new building is years away; and renovations that include sprinklers are at least a year or two away, should the town go that route.
“I understand and I’m sympathetic,” Rainer said, adding that even though the Church Community Housing proposal is not popular with the leadership at the senior center, he needs to pursue it as an option.
“If people found out that an organization would come in and build a community center at no cost to the town and I ignored it – I would be equally criticized.”
Nancy Howard has another suggestion: use some of the town’s allocation of federal COVID money to install sprinklers right away at the Anne Hutchinson building. “What better way to spend $400,000 than on the seniors?” she said.
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