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Out With the Old: old guard feels the squeeze as boomers stake their claim at Bend Senior Center 

Earl Williams fights for the senior citizen lunch program which could possibly be relocated.

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At 83 years old and aided by a walker that he uses both as a podium and mobility aid, Earl Williams doesn't cut the most intimidating figure in a room. But the World War II veteran and former public accountant isn't one to back down from a fight. For years, Williams has been one of the most persistent advocates and critics of the Bend Area Transit, particularly as it relates to senior citizens. He's written letters and testified in front of the City Council in an effort to provide better access to his fellow senior citizens. So when managers at Bend Senior Center went after Williams' lunch, and that of dozens of other seniors, he wasn't about to hand over his tray without a fight.

Now, Williams is leading the campaign against a deal that will relocate the federally subsidized daily lunch program from the Senior Center on Reed Market Road in southeast Bend to the Bend Community Center on Greenwood Avenue. The move is part of a larger shift at the Senior Center that has the staff and managers focusing a greater amount of energy and resources on the area's younger retirees and, in some cases, on middle-aged residents who have not yet reached retirement. It also underscores the difficulty of providing services to seniors in the post-millennial era when more Americans are living longer and a wave of active middle-aged workers is on the cusp of retirement.

The new approach has rankled some of Bend's old guard seniors, several of whom helped raise hundreds of thousands of public and private dollars to fund the construction of the Bend Senior Center. The controversy, which has spilled over into the editorial pages of newspapers (including this week's Mailbox) and public meetings, highlights some of the emerging tensions between the upper end of the senior citizen demographic, many of whom, like Williams, served in WWII and the upcoming generation of baby boomers who are just now hitting retirement age and doing so with an entirely different approach to the post-career years.

The reality is forcing service providers like the Park District to reevaluate how best to service an increasingly diverse group of older Americans who have all been lumped together into the loose category of "seniors." In the case of the Bend Park District, it's finding that while the status quo is not working, many of its customers are reluctant to embrace change.

The Bend Parks and Recreation District, which owns and operates the Bend Senior Center and has for years subsidized the center's operation, has recently embarked on an effort to rebrand, and ultimately retool, the facility, a campaign that likely includes changing the center's name to something that is more appealing to a younger, more active demographic. The approach is not sitting well with critics like Williams who are quick to point out that the seniors who are now being shown the front door are the same ones who raised the money to build the center.

Williams said that seniors never would have contributed or advocated for the center if they knew they would be asked to leave, even symbolically.

"People who donated to this building donated with the idea that it was meant for seniors," he said.

Park district officials say they are not trying to push out any of the senior population. Rather, they say the decision to move the meal program and some of the original programs, including bingo, out of out of the Senior Center was reached collaboratively with the nonprofit group that represents many older seniors, the United Senior Citizens of Bend (USCB) and the meal provider, Central Oregon Council on Aging. The majority of programs that are offered today at the center will still be available and open to all seniors.

Unlikely Bedfellows

Some of the current rancor over the Senior Center can be traced back to the mid 1990s when USCB began a fundraising effort to construct a new home. The group had outgrown its center in a former church on Greenwood Avenue across from the old bowling alley on 5th Street, now the Cash Connections pawn shop.

Working with the City of Bend and Deschutes County, USCB raised more than a million dollars in donations and grants to fund the construction of the new Reed Market Center. But when it came time to open the building in 2001, the City Council and Deschutes County Commissioners, who had acted as a conduit for federal block grant funding, handed the keys to the facility over to the Bend Park and Recreation District. The United Senior Citizens of Bend, which had for two decades owned and operated its own facility, became a tenant in the new building.

Thus began a sometimes rocky 10-year relationship between the park district and the United Senior Citizen's of Bend, which has maintained an office in the building and operated roughly a half-dozen programs that were grandfathered into the new Senior Center.

Growing Pains

While it's tempting to see the flap over the meals program and USCB's offices as a turf fight in which the park district bureaucracy has run over a minority population of seniors, the reality of the situation is more nuanced. USCB board president Virginia Reddick is quick to acknowledge that her group, which was once the primary provider of social and recreational services to seniors in Bend, has seen its member numbers dwindle in recent years.

"We lost our identity here. We built it, but we lost our identity and that has always bothered me," said Reddick, who retired from a career in corporate America to Bend where she got involved with USCB at the front end of the fundraising effort for the new center.

During an hour-long conversation at her small office tucked into a corner of the Senior Center, Reddick frequently references other USCB contributors who have since died. Loss of members due to old age and death is an all-too-real challenge for an organization with an average member age in the mid 70s. But mortality isn't the only thing threatening the viability of the organization. Participation in other activities that USCB runs at the Senior Center has also dropped off over time as members age and those succeeding them have opted to spend their time in other pursuits. At the same time, the park district, which owns the Senior Center, is seeing the demand for its programs rise sharply as the population of Bend's seniors swells due to immigration and the demographic march of the Baby Boomer generation.

"There's a big concern about the adequacy of space here and there has been since the day it opened," said Matt Mercer, who recently took over as the recreation manager for the park district after spending more than a decade as manager of the park district's other main indoor recreation asset, the Juniper Swim and Fitness Center.

Pinochle vs Pickleball

Earlier this year, the park district embarked on an effort to rethink the best way to meet the needs of the growing senior population. Part of that discussion was a close look at how the Senior Center might be better utilized, given the varying needs of its patrons.

"The community has grown greatly and the building hasn't. So we wanted to make sure the building was being used the best that it can be," Mercer told a gathering of seniors at a presentation on the findings last week.

Among other things, the committee, which included several community members still well shy of their senior years, recommended that the Park District expand the center's fitness area, convert the library into a lounge and eliminate a computer lab in favor of more mobile devices like laptops and tablets. It also recommended that the district phase out the meal program in favor of a more casual coffee and sandwich bar in the lobby. There is also the possibility of using the large events room, the same room used for meals and dancing, for more recreation. There are already plans to set up temporary indoor courts for the popular game of pickleball, a tennis-like sport that appeals to a younger set of seniors.

The proposals were met with audible grumbling and headshaking by a contingent of gray-haired seniors parked in the front row of the event room during the presentation. Some of the younger attendees, like Evelyn Cooke, a 70 year old who also volunteers at the center, welcomed the idea of more district-driven recreation.

"I'm excited," said Cooke, who got up and defended the plans against critics. "I respect the hard work that went into the first 10 years of this building, but I'm excited about the next 10 years."

Park district and committee officials emphasize that all of these changes can be made without marginalizing the existing programming and the seniors who rely on it. It's clear, however, that the district is trying to make the building more appealing to a younger and more active demographic.

"The baby boomers of today are going to be the seniors of tomorrow and, as with any business, it's important to attract your future customers." Mercer said.

Parting of Ways

That may be good business, but it sounds like betrayal to seniors like Williams and others who believe that the park district has an obligation to the seniors who helped build the center and are more interested in having a place to play pinochle and socialize than an expanded fitness room and sports programs. They point out that the Bend Community Center has less room for meals and dancing, one of the most well-attended activities at the Senior Center. It also has less parking and lacks the public transportation service of the Senior Center, where riders are dropped at the front door.

Reddick is aware of the criticisms and the concerns, but she is also optimistic about the move - at least publicly. When pressed, Reddick concedes that USCB's move out of the Senior Center is as much about money as anything else. In the end, USCB decided to go where it could preserve its most popular programs: the lunch time meal and dancing and the bingo fundraisers, both of which will continue at the group's former, and now once again, home on Greenwood in the Bend Community Center.

"Things changed. Our whole town is in trouble. But you have to be where you can afford it," Reddick said.

While Reddick insists that USCB could have stayed at the Senior Center beyond the end of its lease this year, it's not clear to what extent the organization would have been able to operate.

In a formal letter to the district dated July 6, Reddick writes that while the lease at the Senior Center was up for renewal this summer "in light of the future plans to downsize USCB's space and activities, we felt this was untenable."

After months of careful messaging about the changes at the center, including pledges that no one would speak negatively about the move, the district staff was indignant at Reddick's characterization of the situation.

"Hmmm, so now we know Virginia's real opinion," wrote Bend Parks Executive Director Don Horton in an email to staff on July 6 that was released to the Source as part of a public records request.

Another center staffer immediately responded offering to do a "positive spin on things" during a cable talk show appearance the following day. Meanwhile, Horton drafted a formal acceptance of Reddick's letter on behalf of USCB.

"Your desire to rebuild USCB into the formidable organization it once was is an honorable one," Horton wrote. "The more intimate setting that the Bend Community Center provides coupled with the other organizations who [sic] mission closely aligns with the mission of USCB should provide some necessary momentum," Horton wrote.

But if that was the district's official public position, it was privately more cynical. Either that, or Horton had changed his view of the move from just two months earlier when he wrote that he thought the relationship with Community Center would be short lived.

"I can't imagine much support for seniors to go anywhere that lacks programs and the social atmosphere that they have at the senior center."

For seniors like Williams, those kinds of words have them feeling that the return to the community center is less of a homecoming and more of an exile.

"Really, we were squeezed out," Williams said.


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