Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Senior Center: What the Seniors taught Al McWilliams


Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told the Seniors at her monthly meeting on March 7th, "We're looking for the history of the planning of the senior center."

While the Administration has had the huge ring binder that senior center director Sharron Brown prepared as background for the new administration since the beginning of January, there is certainly some history that won't appear in any planning or clippings book.

That is the history of how the Seniors beat up on Al McWilliams' administration -- and won.

Since I had a ringside seat, let me share some of the lessons the McWilliams administration learned.

When Al McWilliams took office in January 1998, the subject of a new Senior Center had already occupied more that one mayor and several City Councils. Though they all had been challenged by the situation, no mayor before McWilliams -- including Rick Taylor, Harold Mitchell or Mark Fury -- had been able to get the ball rolling.

Al McWilliams was determined that twin goals would be achieved: build a new center for the seniors, and save the taxpayers the huge rent the city pays. No matter what any proposed Center might cost, that figure would be dwarfed by the millions of dollars in rent the City has paid over the years for the space at East Front Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

In 1990, the McWilliams administration was in the midst of nailing down loose ends on the Tepper's redevelopment project. Now the Tepper's site had been vacant for decades and was a symbol of the dysfunctionality of Plainfield politics. Getting a mixed-use retail and residential project going on the site would mean that Plainfield's downtown would finally get moving again.

And combining that with getting a new office building on the Park-Madison lot would be a double-dose of good news for Plainfield's long-awaited renaissance.

In the midst of it all, a piece of genuine good luck came the city's way -- Sen. Frank Lautenberg had arranged for two sums of money to be set aside for Plainfield. One went to the Plainfield Public Library, and was earmarked for technology improvements. The other -- about $450,000 -- was earmarked specifically for improvements to the Tepper's building.

Why Tepper's?

Because part of the development agreement reached for the building was that the basement, on the order of 15,000+ square feet of raw space, was to be set aside for public use, rent-free, in perpetuity.

Now the City had no particular plan for that space at that moment, but the money, which would go a long way toward roughing out the space for some final use, certainly made the space attractive.

And thus was born the idea of converting the basement into the new Senior Center.

The Tepper's building had many advantages: it was centrally located downtown, there would be ample on-site parking, it would be barrier-free since the building was being outfitted with a new elevator, it provided more than ample space for programming, it was located near downtown shopping, and it would be rent-free forever. What more could you want?

A lot, as it turned out.

"If you think you're going to put us down in that damp, dark basement, you've got another think coming," was the gist of the comments as, week after week, Seniors stormed the Council meetings and took the mike. I remember many of the faces of those who spoke out: Helen Miller, Emily Washington, Jean Black, Mr. and Mrs. Curry, George Smith, Charles Nelson and many, many others.

At last, the administration buckled. The Tepper's proposal was dropped. The seniors got a building committee through which they and the administration would jointly plan the project. And that is the way it has been from then until now.

What did the Seniors teach the McWilliams administration?

I would sum it up as: 1) 'You better pay attention to us, because we have all the time in the world and we will wear you out.' 2) 'Your job is the money. Our job is the planning.' and 3)
'You better pay attention to us, because we have all the time in the world and we will wear you out.'

[This is the first of several posts on the history of the proposed Senior Center. Next: 'Of Hoops and Jigsaws: Where shall we go?']

-- Dan Damon
Keywords: Senior center, Tepper's

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