After months of consideration and a community survey, a La Crosse panel recommended Wednesday that the city look at options for two senior centers, one of which may be combined with the La Crosse Public Library South Branch.
The Senior Center Subcommittee agreed that while the Harry J. Olson Center and La Crosse Senior Citizens Multiple Service Center might not end up the sites of the two centers, the idea of having facilities on either side of the city to provide programming makes sense.
Council member Barb Janssen proposed multiple facilities throughout the city, incorporating several city services — a proposal she said matched up well with the results of the community survey.
“What I saw in the results is that seniors wanted to be around people of other ages as well. They didn’t want to necessarily be around just other seniors,” Janssen said.
Seniors could have a dedicated portion of a city facility that they share with others, she said.
“I think our best way of serving the entire public in our region, as well as meeting all these needs, is to have multiple locations and we really need to focus on those services that we have and the facilities,” Janssen said. “I think the south branch library is definitely one area that we can expand on. We can look at what can we do to make it a better community center.”
Plans for the north side community center are more tentative. The committee recommended looking at the current facility as well as researching possible alternatives on the north side.
The recommendation also directs city staff and possibly a consultant to look into options for partnerships in the community, setting aside up to $20,000 to hire outside help.
The two current centers have been in existence for decades, and the buildings in which they operate are in need of substantial repairs. About a year ago, the city’s Board of Public Works decided these centers would be too expensive to continue to maintain, prompting the formation of a subcommittee to examine sustainable options.
The subcommittee talked about options such as having a single facility or doing minimal repairs and nothing else; however, council member Doug Happel, who chairs the subcommittee, said a single facility was unpopular with users and minimal repairs would be simply kicking the can down the road.
“It’ll never go away unless we come up with something better,” he said. “People who use the senior centers deserve something better.”
The leaders of the city’s library services are on board with the partnership for a multi-purpose south side facility. The city’s Library Board voted late last year to support doing something different with the south community library building, and director Kelly Krieg-Sigman proposed Wednesday shrinking the size of the library and expanding library staff duties to include senior programming, should the city move forward with combining the facilities.
“Libraries are organisms. We are as much community-based services as we are the 1950s ‘I’m going to go to the library and check out a book,’” Krieg-Sigman added.
Library staff members have that skillset, and the money is already in the city’s budget.
“When you talk about managing a building, booking rooms, arranging for programming, I’ve got an entire team of people who already do that 40 hours per week,” Krieg-Sigman said.
However, she pointed out renovating the existing building would be extremely difficult, due to its age and construction. Not only are all the book shelves built in, the concrete tile construction is very inflexible.
Those factors will be considered as the recommendations move forward.
The recommendation lines up with the results of a senior center survey, in which 81 percent of the 671 respondents agreed that the city should operate two senior centers, one on the north side and one on the south side of the city.
“I’m not surprised having grown up in the eras of whether we should have one or two high schools in La Crosse and where the boundaries should be,” Happel said.
The survey results also indicated which activities people would most like to see and what kind of fees they would be willing to pay.
“An indoor walking track was most popular,” Happel said.
Popular activities included fitness equipment or classes, field trips, legal services and educational courses. Least popular was learning about social services, such as housing assistance and other benefits.
A third of respondents said they would pay up to $10 per month for the services.
Happel was pleased to see about half of respondents were under 65, which he said spoke to the future use of the facilities.
“That tells you there is a population out there who can use this,” he said. “The senior population is growing, so the likelihood of people making use of these is pretty great.”
Happel will work with the city’s legal and planning departments in the next few weeks to develop a resolution summarizing the subcommittee’s recommendations. The resolution will go before the Board of Public Works and the Finance and Personnel Committee before it is voted on by the La Crosse Common Council.