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Residents to help decide if new senior center is worth the expense

With a list of at least four potential projects that could each require some kind of property tax hike to complete, Jonesborough officials are turning to town residents to prioritize the town’s needs.
At meetings in recent months, members of the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen listed a handful of potential projects for town residents to consider. The BMA even refrained from setting a property tax rate until the end of August to allow for analysis of the proposed projects and a possible tax increase to fund them.
Currently, the town’s property tax rate is $1.18 per $100 of property owned. A one-cent increase, according to Town Recorder Abbey Miller, would add an additional $13,000 to the town coffers annually.
Projects proposed by town leaders include the construction of a new senior center, the renovation of the McKinney Arts Center at Booker T. Washington School, the construction of a new city garage complex and the purchase of the old Jackson Theater in downtown.
A public meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Visitors Center for town residents to voice their opinions on the projects.
“Everyone on our board is very aware of just how tough things are these days. I have spoken with lots of folks who are concerned about a potential tax increase,” Mayor Kelly Wolfe said. “This board is going to, as we always do, look at every option available before a decision is made regarding these projects. We have been, and will continue to be, good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
Still, Wolfe believes there is no way to proceed with the proposed projects without some kind of additional revenue.
“So the question becomes whether we proceed on any of these projects,” Wolfe said.
In an attempt to inform its readers, the Herald & Tribune will spend the weeks leading up to the Aug. 23 public meeting looking deeper into each of the four proposed projects. In the first installment of the series, we look at the construction of a new senior center.

Town Administrator Bob Browning would say town leaders have been talking seriously about building a new senior center for the last five years. But ask Mayor Kelly Wolfe, and he’ll quickly give you a much different time frame.
“Back in the mid-90s when Homer G’Fellers was mayor, he asked me to lunch and showed me plans to renovate or add on to the current senior center,” Wolfe said. “I’ve been following this discussion for 15 to 16 years.”
“I believe the time is finally here to fish or cut bait as far as the senior center goes.”
The senior center program originally was established in the late 1970s in Jonesborough, with a house next to the Methodist church serving as its first location. Years later, it moved into its current space, a former RV dealership on Persimmon Ridge Road.
“It has never been in a facility that was designed for that use,” Browning said. “You always start out behind the 8-ball when you are trying to use retrofitted space.”
With the Baby Boomer generation increasing the senior population at a rapid rate and the town’s overall population seemingly doing the same, the need for a better facility has found its way to the top of Jonesborough’s list of potential projects.
According to data provided by town leaders, Jonesborough grew by 31 percent between 2000 and 2009.
“When you have 31 percent growth in a decade, you outgrow several things,” Wolfe said. “The senior center is one of them.”
Approximately 1,350 seniors belong to the current senior center in Jonesborough, 85 percent of which are county residents. The center is an estimated 6,500 square feet and includes only 35 parking spaces. A needs assessment provided by Alderman Mary Gearhart indicates the new senior center should total between 24,600 and 32,000 square feet and provide more than 100 parking spots.
Town leaders believe they have found the perfect property to build a new facility specifically designed for seniors. Located on East Main Street, the site is one block from the McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School. Most of the land – minus two parcels – is already owned by the town, which currently houses its city garage there.
The two adjoining parcels, expected to cost a total of $200,000 to obtain, would have to be acquired to provide direct access to Longview Avenue from the center.
The overall site would be slightly larger than 4 acres – more than double the size of the current center’s property.
The construction of a senior center at that location, leaders say, will also serve as a catalyst for the much-needed redevelopment of that neighborhood.
“It has been neglected for years. The town having its garage there has had an adverse effect on the area,” Wolfe said. “We have done them no favors. We have devalued the neighborhood.”
But the fix is not a cheap one.
“I don’t know how we’d do the senior center (project) without a tax increase,” Browning said. “We have looked at this as probably a $2 million project.”
While initial construction costs are estimated around $2 million, a master plan also includes space for a gym and aquatics exercise area – both high-dollar facilities that are not included in the immediate plans. The gym and pool areas would not only be used by seniors, but could also be opened up for other community purposes.
For now, town leaders are focusing solely on the senior center space.
Should the BMA ultimately approve building a new senior center, it could take up to a year to get things started at the site. Town leaders would first have to spend time fine tuning the plans, finish negotiations with the owners of the two parcels still needed, and “go the extra mile to make sure it’s going to be done right,” Wolfe said.
Officials will look at a multitude of ways to fund such a project, including requests for funding from Washington County and any available grant money. Browning also discussed the likelihood of getting a Rural Development community facilities loan to fund the project. The loan, which is the kind that was used to build Jonesborough’s Town Hall, is a longer-term loan than most building loans.
“Town Hall was paid with one that was for 38 years,” Browning said. “We couldn’t have done that project if it was a 20-year loan.”
Because of too many unknown factors, leaders say it’s too early to offer an estimate as to just how much of a property tax increase the senior center project would require. It is, however, the most expensive of the potential projects slated for discussion later this month.
“We’ll look at every option to be able to come up with the means of funding that facility,” Browning said. “The key to it is to build the facility with the kind of quality that, 40 years later, it’s still able to be used.”