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It will cost the city of La Crosse nearly $1.5 million to make immediate and necessary repairs to the Harry J. Olson Senior Center on the North Side, according to Mayor Tim Kabat.

Kabat addressed a crowd of roughly 75 concerned citizens, members of the City Council, city department heads as well as board members of the center about the future of the building Wednesday during a contentious meeting.

The city budgeted $196,000 to make repairs and upgrades to the building — which houses activities for senior citizens and acts as a place for the area elderly to congregate — but discovered the cost would be significantly higher to cover deferred maintenance and emergency repairs to the structure.

Tim Kabat at Harry J. Olson center

Mayor Tim Kabat waves a cost report for emphasis as he addressed the concerns of citizens at the Harry J. Olson Senior Center. Members of the senior center met Wednesday with city officials to discuss the future of the facility.

The organization’s lease with the city for the building ends in 2020 and, at the time of the meeting, members don’t have a move-in ready, alternative facility.

“For the last month, we’ve been in a little bit of turmoil,” said Ralph Geary, a member of the senior center board of directors.

Among the most expensive repairs are mechanical, electrical and structural updates that need to be made to ensure the safety of the facility.

Area citizens voiced their concerns about the lack of available permanent space to house the organization, which has seen 9% growth with the addition of 37 members in the past two weeks, according to senior center board of directors’ member Donna Wavra.

Fifteen percent of the La Crosse county population was 65 or older in 2015, and that number is expected to reach 24% by 2030, according to the Wisconsin Department of Human Services.

Concerned citizen

Concerned citizens met at the Harry J. Olson Senior Center to discuss the future of the facility and the organization with Mayor Tim Kabat, as well as La Crosse city council members and city department heads. 

“We have 600 seniors coming and going in our center at a minimum every week, and I don’t know where all of those people will be going if this center closes,” said Marilyn Rudser, senior center board president.

The group looked at the Black River Beach Neighborhood Center as an alternative to the current building, but it was determined that facility didn’t have enough room for the organization, Rudser said.

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“We can’t rent those rooms because many of them are being used for their programs,” Rudser said.

The board wants to make sure they’re able to keep the organization’s doors open five days a week and to continue to serve meals and offer exercise classes, among other popular programs, to area seniors - a goal shared by a number of city officials - according to Harry J. Olson Center board members.

One of the city’s main challenges is obtaining the funding necessary for preventative maintenance on the building, Kabat said.

The City Council members began discussing plans for both the South Side Senior Center and the Harry J. Olson Center roughly six years ago and, in January 2016, a resolution was passed by the council to grant a five-year lease to both centers.

At the end of that lease, the city would offer the buildings to both groups for $1 if they wanted to assume ownership or they would get a group together to look at other options to house both organizations. That group met last year, Kabat said.

“One of the recommendations for this building was, ‘Let’s look at what it would take to actually just keep everything in place, fix it up, do all of the updates and everything that was needed,” Kabat said. The city hired an architect to inspect the building, meet with members of the board to discuss the building and its future, and put together a report on what restorations were needed.

“When that report came out earlier this year, a few months ago, we were all taken aback at the cost of what was needed for this building,” Kabat said. “To do just the deferred maintenance, the preventative maintenance, repairs, roofs, elevators, plumbing, all those kinds of things — the price tag was $1,366,000.”

However, the cost to build a new facility would cost more than the cost to repair the building.

The dilemma council members face, Kabat said, is whether to spend that money on repairing and updated the Harry J. Olson Senior Center or put that money toward a multi-use facility that can be shared with the South Side seniors, parks and rec department and other organizations.

The $196,000 earmarked by the city for updates to the existing building doesn’t even cover the cost of the emergency safety repairs alone, Kabat said.

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Data, interactive and video journalist

Elizabeth Beyer is the agriculture, data, interactive, audio and video journalist with the La Crosse Tribune.

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