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Portsmouth Senior Center: 'Don't quit on us'

Members ask for town’s help as June 30 shutdown looms

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/15/21

PORTSMOUTH — On July 1, will local senior citizens have a place to play pool, get some exercise through line dancing or yoga, receive free tax help, pick up a box lunch, or get together …

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Portsmouth Senior Center: 'Don't quit on us'

Members ask for town’s help as June 30 shutdown looms


PORTSMOUTH — On July 1, will local senior citizens have a place to play pool, get some exercise through line dancing or yoga, receive free tax help, pick up a box lunch, or get together with friends to watch an old movie?

That’s what members of the Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center would like to know. The 90-year-old Anne Hutchinson Building’s days may be numbered, as the state has ruled the building must be vacated by June 30 if three outstanding fire code violations — a $400,000-plus sprinkler system being the most expensive — are not addressed by then. 

With the help of the town’s Department of Public Works, the center addressed 34 of 37 violations discovered in 2019, and later won a one-year extension from the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review to install sprinklers and also address two other issues: headroom clearance at the front door and kitchen plenum and duct system work. The variances for those three violations expire on June 30 of this year.

Although activity at the center has slowed down considerably since last March due to Covid, the building still welcomes pared-down groups of members in for a variety of activities. Masks and social distancing are strictly enforced by Cynthia Koniecki, the center’s director.

The members we spoke with all said it would be shame if the center were to be shut down. 

“We need the exercise for our mental and physical health. We need the socialization, too, especially during this Covid; we’re all home,” said Josephine Vierra, who was leading a group of line dancers in the center’s main activities room. 

One of the other dancers was Carol Sweeney-Boyd. “If we close the senior center, we’re not going to be able to help each other,” she said. “If one of us needed help, we could ask — I could call Josephine and say, ‘Gee, do you know someone who knows someone?’ This is a way for us to connect, and if we lose connection with people, we will fail. This town of Portsmouth will be a failure.”

Over on the north side of the building, pool sharks Dominick Daddio, Bob Beaumont and John Silvia were huddled over a table. They come in to play three or four times a week.

“I would be sadly disappointed,” Mr. Daddio said of the center’s possible closing. “This is a very meaningful time for us. We have something to do, we’re good at it. We can enjoy our competency still.”

Added Mr. Silvia, who’s been playing pool here for 25 years, “It certainly beats staying home watching television.”

Continuity is important

Closing on June 30 is not an option, said Helen Mathieu, who chairs the center’s board of directors. 

“It would destroy and continuity of the senior center,” she said. “You can’t just stop a senior center, and two or three years later start it up again. You’re breaking all the ties with the AARP and all of these other things. And Portsmouth would, I think, be the only town that doesn’t have a senior center. I know that’s not something our (Town) Council members want, either.” 

Ms. Koniecki said the center has close to 700 registered members. “We lost some people because they’re afraid to pay their dues if the center’s going to close,” she said. “We’ll all beside ourselves right now.”

So what’s the solution? 

Ms. Mathieu said she wants the town’s support in requesting another extension from the appeals board so the center can stay open past June 30 until a longterm solution is found.

“The fire safety board meets four times a month,” said Ms. Mathieu, who doesn’t believe the building even needs a sprinkler system if capacity is kept to a minimum. The center, in fact, was originally given a variance on sprinklers way back in 2005, she said.  

“I don’t believe every senior center in the state has a sprinkler system. Why are we just accepting and not pushing with an avenue that I think legally is open to us? I’d like to get together with the town to help with that appeal. I don’t see why they wouldn’t give us the variance,” she said.

Members understand that while the property is owned by the town, the senior center is an independent organization. According to Ms. Mathieu, the center has an annual budget of about $180,000. Members fund-raise $50,000 annually and the center receives between $80,000 and $90,000 from the town in civic support annually, which helps cover the bulk of expenses. 

“It’s a lot of money, and we appreciate the money we’ve gotten from the town. All we’re saying is, don’t quit on us,” she said.

If an appeal were granted, then the town and senior center would have more time to explore either rehabbing the existing building, finding a new space, or constructing something new, she said.

Working toward a solution

Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr., however, poured cold water on the idea of another appeal during an interview Monday.

“The board’s not going to let them do it,” he said. “I went to the board at the last meeting with them and they told us point blank that this is the last time they’re extending it.”

That said, the town has been investigating numerous options to keep services alive for its elderly population, he said. “What they’re not understanding is we’re working very hard to create a new home,” Mr. Rainer said.

First off, the town needs to find a “short- and medium-term” solution, he said. “Where are they going to go?”

He’s talked to Shawn Brown, the Town of Middletown’s administrator, about allowing a merger of the towns’ two senior centers so that Portsmouth residents can use Middletown’s facility on Green End Avenue.

“In principle, he’s totally on board,” Mr. Rainer said.

The longterm solution would be the construction or development of a new senior center, he said. 

“I’m hoping we can work with Church Community House for something at that site, or over where the Aquidneck Island Christian Academy was,” Mr. Rainer said, referring to the building that housed Coggeshall School many years ago. “Both of those buildings are derelict, but they could be redeveloped, or torn down and replaced.”

Mr. Rainer gave the council an update on his plans Monday night, and said he will continue to keep members apprised of any developments.

As for the short-term plan the administrator outlined, Ms. Mathieu said asking members to travel to Middletown is not practical and it would eliminate the only lunch program for seniors in Portsmouth. (Due to Covid, the center has a grab-and-go program in which members drive up to a door on the north end of the building and are handed a boxed lunch for a $3 suggested donation.)

“People are not going to drive to Green End Avenue to get their lunch when this is where they usually go,” she said.

Added Ms Koniecki, “I have nothing against Middletown, but we don’t want to do that. I hate putting a burden on Middletown.”

Ms. Mathieu said she’s been looking herself for a suitable place to where the senior center could move, but hasn’t found anything, The center has about 9,000 square feet downstairs — the upstairs, previously used for storage, has been cleared out and closed off due to safety concerns — and she’d like a new place to have at least 7,000 square feet. But even that would cost at least $2.1 million, according to her calculations.

Ms. Mathieu still thinks something could be done with the existing building, which for the most part is still in good condition, she said. “This building was built in 1930. Some of our members are older than that, so you can appreciate their attitude when they say, ‘What’s wrong with that building?’”

‘People are so caring’

Katherine Caramos said it would be a shame to lose the senior center, and she doesn’t even live in Portsmouth. (The center has members from all around the East Bay area and beyond.)

“I’ve been coming here for 21 years,” said the 85-year-old Fall River resident, who first heard about the center after she retired, when a teacher friend from Somerset invited her to a line dancing group. 

“This senior center is terrific. The people are so caring. They even call up people during the pandemic to see if we need anything,” she said. 

After two knee operations and two back operations, she still line dances because “that’s what keeps you moving.”

When asked if Fall River has a senior center, Ms. Caramos said yes — “but they don’t do line dancing.”

“We need backers, we need supporters,” said Ms. Koniecki. “We need people to go out there and campaign for us. Put in on the referendum — see if people would vote for a new senior center. I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” she said.

Ms. Mathieu agreed.

“We do want to make the point that we are absolutely appreciative of the council’s efforts, the funding, and the fact that we’ve had this location free of cost.

“However, we don’t want Portsmouth to be the only town that doesn’t have a senior center.”

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