Commissioners Split Over Senior Mall - TribPapers

Commissioners Split Over Senior Mall

Besides being a place to sign up for government services, the new senior mall would offer congregate nutrition, yoga, weaving, childcare, and more. Screenshot.

Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners learned about plans for an active aging center concept at their recent briefing. The plans showed a great and spacious building, a 65,000 square-foot, $26 million structure with the essence of a heavenly airplane hangar. Asked by Commissioner Terri Wells, “Do we need something that fancy?” Health and Human Services (HHS) Director Stoney Blevins replied that the original plans first featured a fountain in the middle. Blevins said he immediately told the designers that wasn’t going to fly in Buncombe County. Besides being a “maintenance nightmare,” it would signal to taxpayers a degree of tone deafness in the fiscal responsibility department.

The building was described as a senior mall, a one-stop shop. It would have space for seniors to enroll in government services, share congregate nutrition, enjoy yoga, learn weaving, drop their grandchildren off for daycare, get support for their caregivers, or even get fitted in the only wheelchair clinic in the area. Staff said most importantly, it would be a remedy for social isolation, a problem that makes seniors susceptible to all forms of abuse, including financial scams. A video was shown about Barbara, who needed care for her wife, who had Alzheimer’s. Barbara wanted a senior mall not just for her wife, but for herself eventually. Blevins described it as “living together, working together, under one roof.”

The current plan was to build the center on the UNC-Asheville Centennial Campus, but it would be owned by the county and operated by the HHS department. Staff expected state funds would be available to assist with the project. Since senior centers have received support in other parts of the state, an equity angle could be played in lobbying for a first for Western North Carolina. The county was expected to contribute no more than $10 million toward construction, but the $26 million estimate was somewhat dated. In light of current economic trends, Commissioner Robert Pressley asked if the county would be on the hook for more. Wells was concerned that the county might have to increase taxes on the very seniors that are being priced out of their homes to pay for this.

Everybody agreed the seniors were about the most overlooked demographic when it came to providing county services, but some on the board did not think seniors would appreciate the county building them a palace. Wells said a lot of the seniors with whom she spoke did not want to go downtown. They wanted activities in their communities. Chair Brownie Newman, who was of a similar mind, thought seniors would be better served at the many community centers that operate on shoestring budgets and receive very little from the county.

Staff responded, telling Wells that measures were being taken to help seniors who still drive feel comfortable downtown. For example, the center would have ample stop lights and security. What’s more, state requirements for senior centers have too many stipulations to make construction of satellite centers around the country fiscally feasible. Blevins assured the commissioners that these plans were not finalized. To allay concerns about costs, he said the county would eventually contract with an architect and a construction manager for right-sizing.

However, Commissioner Amanda Edwards wanted Buncombe County to be a leader with a world-class senior center. The county has a track record of leading. For example, “No one was doing the Family Justice Center like we do it now.” She liked the government answering the needs of families caring for aging relatives, but she hoped the county would also help make sure the nonprofits that were going to support the services at the center had sufficient resources. “I cannot think of a more exciting project right now,” she said.

Givens Estates and Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community came up more than once in the conversation. The well-off people who live there already have services like the county is proposing. However, staff, however, hoped, in the interest of equity and inclusion, the center would serve people of all incomes, including the residents of upscale, self-sufficient senior communities. For example, it was suggested that retired physicians may wish to use the centers for their congregate nutrition.

Commissioner Al Whitesides shared that he had been a member of the Givens Board since 1978. Givens and Deerfield, he said, were spokes in the wheel, but the proposed facility “would be the center of the wheel.” He said this was an opportunity the commissioners could not afford to pass up. To do so “would be a travesty.” He continued, “We have got to allow these people—to allow us—to age in place with dignity, [and] I don’t want to see us spare anything. I want to see us put a facility in place that will be state of the art. ” Whitesides said the community “owed it” to the senior population, and he anticipated no shortage of willing donors. He said aging taxpayers who need county support to pay their property taxes would benefit from the services offered at the center, as well.

Newman said in government, there was no shortage of wonderful ideas, and all ideas sounded great in isolation. However, it is the job of the commissioners to look at all requests for funding in perspective during the budget cycle and figure out how to “do the most good with what we have.” When it comes down to picking and choosing projects or raising taxes, “things get real.” He then added he would like more information on costs, as “there’s a big difference between $10 million and 50% of some unknown number.” Based on information in the presentation, he said it should make sense to locate in a central location those services forced by state regulations to be consolidated, and disperse the rest to the community centers that could adapt to local preferences.

Commissioner Parker Sloan asked if anybody had considered adding a second story to the facility to create affordable senior housing. The inquiry was met with nervous laughter. Newman, in light of ongoing pressure from the pickleball lobby, joked that he wanted to add courts for them. And at that, County Manager Avril Pinder quipped that staff had planned on putting solar on the roof, but they could put the pickleball courts there instead.