The following was written and submitted by Sen Jim Seveney, District 11 & Rep Terri Cortvriend, District 72 .
There is a looming issue facing our Senior Citizens in Portsmouth. The Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center, housed in the former Ann Hutchinson elementary school on Bristol Ferry Road, will be closing next June. This 95 year old building has served our community well, but it’s reaching the end of useful life, and is beyond economic repair. This loss will leave a big hole in the social fabric of daily life for many of our senior citizens. The Center has hundreds of members who enjoy a rich array of social, recreational, and community service activities. For years the Senior Center has served as one of the State’s meal sites. Prior to the pandemic, many seniors ate there every day, and continue to pick up “grab-and-go” lunches on a daily basis. Our seniors will want to resume this important social function when we are clear of COVID-19.
We do not yet have a plan for replacing it, and we cannot allow this essential service be lost to our senior population. Town leaders are exploring several potential interim solutions. In pursuit of a long term solution, we met with Church Community Housing (CCH) for help, Executive Director Christian Belden, and his deputy, Sean Saunders. They were very generous with their time, and offered viable options. Their principal mission is developing affordable housing for anyone in need, including seniors. They were kind enough to show us several recent projects and we were really impressed, not only with the quality of the facilities they build, but their business processes for financing and partnering with their host communities.
We are all painfully aware of the compelling need for more affordable housing solutions, certainly an issue for Portsmouth. But our focus right now is the Senior Center problem, and that’s what we asked them about. We were told yes, CCH can include a community center as part of any housing development they build.
So, with that bit of good news, we talked about how a deal like this would work. CCH will put together the financing and pay for development and construction. They manage the operations, getting the tenants, and making it viable over the long term. They cooperate closely with the community on design decisions. The town would specify what our needs are for a senior/community center that would be part of the development.
From the town side, our “cost” is providing CCH the land to build on. So the pro’s are: we avoid the need for town borrowing (we already face a significant school bond issue in the not too distant future), we repurpose unused land, this new development goes onto the property tax rolls, and we have a long-term fix for our senior citizens… a new facility for their use, and others, as town leadership decides.
The cons are: the planning, financing and permitting can take a while, and the town will have to put a referendum question on the ballot asking citizens’ permission to enter into a long-term lease with Church. It would take at least a couple of years to work through everything, and get to construction. All of this activity would take place in close cooperation between Church Community Housing and the town of Portsmouth. We urge the Portsmouth Town Council and administration to consider this opportunity. As a first look, it seems like a cost-effective, fiscally responsible solution to several problems… first and foremost making sure our seniors still have a place to call their own in Portsmouth.