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Letter to the Editor: Senior Center in Dedham

"We think the proposals failed because they were never developed by and “owned” by the Town as a whole."

Dear Editor,

Over the years the Council on Aging and allied groups have tried a number of times to site a Senior Center for Dedham. Their approach was simple: a small COA-run group of interested people would come up with a proposal that they thought made sense and they would try to convince Town Meeting or the voters to approve it. 

But their proposals failed.  And that wasn’t because Dedham voters or Town Meeting members are anti-senior. We think the proposals failed because they were never developed by and “owned” by the Town as a whole. However hard the small COA-oriented groups worked, they could not include enough of the other varied interests and people that live in Dedham to develop Town-wide majority support for any location.

The latest attempt uses that same model: a small group (this time a private committee) comes up with another location that - to the private group – seems just fine. Their solution to the problem of getting Town-wide buy-in is simple:  bypass Town Meeting and go directly to the Selectmen for a decision.

The controversial questions about their plan – whether an 8000 sq. ft. senior center AND a  new barn AND a still unknown number of additional parking spaces should be built on the open space of the Endicott Estate; why a 20,000 sq ft Senior Center was needed in 2008 but an 8,000 sq ft building is fine in 2012;  what the costs are to operate the center and how the Town will pay for it; whether smaller options that leave the existing barn instead of demolishing it make sense; whether the offer of private  financing will be there if a different location is selected by the Town – are all left for someone else to resolve.

Since those issues were not worked out beforehand in a public, Town-wide process, they are emerging now in the media. The COA has reacted by appearing to change their process to officially sponsor the private group; people raising reasonable questions about the wisdom of more paving and an 8,000 sq. ft. at the Endicott Estate are being called anti-senior; instead of leading a public discussion of why this project makes sense for the Town, the COA’s approach seems to be that the Town owes them an approval for what they want.  The lack of a clear public process has turned what should be a positive and unifying event – finally siting a Senior Center in Dedham - into a political firestorm, with fiery letters in the Times answering the many questions about the proposal by calling for approval now.

We have a better idea. Instead of fighting this out in the papers, leaving Town Meeting out of the loop and allowing a private group to make what are really public decisions, let’s use the talent and expertise of Town Meeting to select and recommend a Senior Center site for Dedham. Using the already proven and successful model of the School Building Rehabilitation Committee, in the fall we will ask Town Meeting to set up a Senior Center Siting Committee which would be responsible for selecting and recommending to Town Meeting a location for a financially viable Senior Center in Dedham.

Will that process magically produce a result acceptable to all?  Of course not; we are a vibrant Town and people are not shy about saying what they like and don’t like. But through a wider group – including the Selectmen, the FinCom, the Council on Aging, the SBRC, and At-Large Members  - we have a better chance at working publicly through all these site selection and budget issues together.
And this kind of committee has already succeeded in Dedham. In the late 1990s the Dedham School Committee believed that the Town should build a new middle school. The easiest path would have been for the School Committee by itself to study the issue and recommend what would be best for the Town. 
But the School Committee took a different approach. It wanted the process and the resulting recommendation to come from a wide cross section of the Town, not just the School Committee. It wanted to dispel the notion it was only a “schools” project; it wanted the decision to belong to the entire Town. And it could not truly be a Town-wide project if the School Committee insisted on controlling the process. The Middle School recommendation was too important to be left to the schools.

So the School Committee proposed to Town Meeting that 7 of the 9 seats on what would become the School Building Rehabilitation Committee come from OTHER interests in Dedham. This guaranteed that the process . . . and criteria . . . and recommendation . . . would have to be acceptable to other interests than just the School Committee.

It’s time for Dedham to take this same approach for a Senior Center.  With a clear public process, with wide representation among many Town interests, and with the possibility of private funding for construction of a Senior Center, this is an excellent time to finally make real the decades-long goal of siting and operating a Senior Center in Dedham.  The Council on Aging has built up a good head of steam to meet that goal. We can continue to play politics with this issue, or we can shift gears and use Town Meeting to finally get the job done.

Fred Civian
Lindsay and Cindy Barich
Maurice and Ellen Burns
Jim and Susan Fay
Bob Frasca, Jr.
Andy and Roberta Lawlor
Mark and Cathy Lawton
Bob and Kathy Schortmann
Dave and Cherylann Sheehan

Dan O'Neil August 15, 2012 at 02:14 PM
I feel it's rediculous that we are spending money on a project that's going to ruin the square instead of investing in our seniors. This senior center thing has been going on for years. They deserve it. Avery got a giant new school. The old Avery should have been refurbished and given to them instead of some art school or whatever that is. We had a building and folks that needed a building and had been waiting for 10 years and the town gives it to artists. Typical.
Sydney August 15, 2012 at 02:40 PM
That's what happens when newbies come into town and take over ;)
mary August 15, 2012 at 03:36 PM
The Town DID offer the old Avery to the COA but they declined. A local developer offered to renovate the old Avery for the COA but they declined. The COA has declined at least 5 other locations presented to them. The seniors deserve a senior center but may want to evaluate their leadership's ability to bring this project to fruition.
Dan O'Neil August 16, 2012 at 02:03 PM
Ok I wasn't awar of that. Nontheless they still deserve one.
Rachel Forsyth-Tuerck August 16, 2012 at 04:18 PM
It's not about if they deserve one or not, but how to actually make it a reality. This letter to the editor seems rational and logical. Personally, I'd rather see a multi--generational community center that has a strong focus for seniors. That may be a more appealing option to gain town-wide support. When I'm a senior, I suspect I'll prefer to be at a place that is a vibrant part of the whole community rather than a separate place just for older folks.
Dan O'Neil August 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
I tend to agree with that. Actually I thought they should not have torn down the old middle school to use it as a secondary community center, but I guess the ballfield that hasn't even been used for an actual game was more important, but that's another story. I think a community center would be terrific with the focus being mainly seniors, but also have occassional classes or day care or an after school program or something like that. Avery would have been an ok site for something like that. Anyways we're all not getting any younger.
Nancy Vetock August 17, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Very sadly, one of the reasons that most of us decline to get involved in local politics is abundantly apparent in the issue of the senior center. When the Endicott estate became a possible site, certain town meeting members living near the Estate and abutters became active, hiding a NIMBY by wanting a better "process." Where were they when the "process" was the Avery School? Has anyone asked why the Avery was turned down? Why did Dedham voters reject an override for a senior center, but pass one for the land on route 135 for Parks and Rec to have more ball fields and family outings now mainly used as a temporary dog park and offices? I have lived in Dedham for 30+ years and the Senior center site is STILL an issue. I believe we are one of only 2 or 3 towns in the state without one. Shame on all of us!!
Edna August 17, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Nancy: People (especially Precinct 1 people) voted for the Rec Center for NIMBY reasons...... to avoid a developer getting that land. There was no process for the Avery school because the COA didn't want it. The override vote failed because the COA was asking for a $19M center, which many people (including seniors) thought was excessive. Hope that helped.
Elizabeth A. Doris-Gustin August 17, 2012 at 06:53 PM
The COA has rejected every site offered to it the in the last 25 years. They seem determined that the Endicott Estate is the only place they can go, and the Town of Dedham- has said no. There is a need for a Dedham Civic Center, which can have a dedicated area for seniors. Why can we not try to get a group together to look into a recreation center?

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