Space tight at senior center

New site, addition weighed for popular Hampstead facility

`Scads of people here'

March 03, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

At North Carroll Senior Center in Hampstead, they know how to have a good time, even if they don't always have the space to do so.

On a typical afternoon, lively tunes from a bluegrass band pull couples onto the dance floor. About 85 gregarious people surround the dancers, filling every available seat. Many call greetings to friends rather than try to mingle among the tightly arranged tables. They play spirited card games, sip freshly brewed coffee and socialize.

For many, the center means camaraderie, activity and structure. But the oldest and smallest of Carroll County's five centers often is so crowded that people leave without a chance to participate.

"Something is going on here every day, morning and afternoon, but there is not much room," said Carolyn Jennings of Hampstead, secretary of the center council. "There are scads of people here from other areas because the programs are so innovative. They come here and can't get a parking spot or a seat inside, so they leave. We need a new center, more space."

North Carroll, with an average monthly attendance of 1,130, has outgrown its space: 5,000 square feet on the ground floor of the North Carroll library branch. Meals served -- mostly lunches -- increased 56 percent last year, according to statistics from the county Bureau on Aging.

Carroll's over-60 population has grown to almost 22,000 in the last decade, a nearly 30 percent jump, and its senior centers are experiencing a corresponding demand for their programs. But, unlike North Carroll, most are coping with the growth. Renovations soon will be under way at the South Carroll Center, and the Taneytown building recently expanded.

"Carroll is the seventh-fastest- growing county in the state for senior population, and we are drawing seniors from other counties at our borders," said Janet B. Flora, chief of the county Bureau on Aging.

Musician Paul Neal of Freeland, 84, brings his guitar or his mandolin and plays for the North Carroll crowd, but he often has a trek from a far-flung parking space.

"I come here for the music, but I would sure like this place to be bigger, and I would like to have a place to park," said Neal.

North Carroll is `the best'

Participants are from surrounding communities, such as Hampstead, Millers and Manchester, and beyond. Some travel from southern Pennsylvania and Baltimore County, and many said they prefer North Carroll to the other four centers in the county.

"We have been to the center in Hanover [Pa.] and several in Baltimore County, and this is the best for seniors," said Charles Polanskas, 96, of Westminster.

Jacob Hundertmark, 78, lives nearer Reisterstown, but drives the extra miles to Hampstead because the center "is friendlier and more down-to-earth."

Bill Kaufman of Millers, North Carroll's center council president and a member for three years, said, "I've seen it get busier every year. This is a big growth area, and the baby boomers will soon be joining us. This is a friendly place with a lot of clubs and programs. It keeps us all out of trouble."

Members have tried to adapt to their burgeoning numbers. They stack furniture in the corner of a small conference area to accommodate meetings. They store heavily used exercise equipment -- usually wedged between the craft and game areas -- whenever there is a billiards tournament.

The center, which opened about the same time as the library 12 years ago, has no health room for blood pressure screenings or confidential sessions, or classroom for courses such as driver education for seniors. The center's manager has run out of room in her office and stows files in the kitchen pantry.

Members have ideas for more programs. They would like a woodshop and quilting racks, but most innovations are impossible within the present space.

Carroll commissioners have planned a $400,000, 2,400-square- foot addition to the North Carroll center -- half of the money is expected from a state grant, if the General Assembly does not cut the money from the governor's budget. The addition, which would take about a year to complete, would reconfigure the rooms, create a new entrance and expand parking.

A new building with about 15,000 square feet -- three times what the center has -- would cost about $2.5 million to build on county-owned land. The cost will increase if the county has to buy a lot.

"If we build less than 15,000 square feet, we are not being long-sighted enough," said Flora. "We are building centers that attract people."

`We needed more space'

Jolene G. Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, remembers planning the North Carroll center, the first of five in the county.

"We had no concept plans, and we estimated space we would need by measuring the space the seniors were using at a church," said Sullivan. "No one, even at the state level, could give us a direction. I guess this building is suffering from oldest-child syndrome. We have since learned we needed more space, and we are better now at estimating need."

The newest center in Westminster has 18,000 square feet for programs and another 9,000 square feet for the Bureau of Aging offices.

"The commissioners are committed to a new building for North Carroll, but that is several years from now," Sullivan said. "The addition is more than a Band-Aid. It will allow more opportunities for a center that has seen tremendous growth and needs space."

Sullivan spoke to the North Carroll group last week, detailing their options. An informal poll showed a split in opinion among the members.

"They have the money for an addition and we could have that space in a year," said Anita Healy, 71, the council treasurer. "I think we need a new building, but if we turn down the money for the addition, who knows how long we will have to wait for anything else."

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