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COHASSET

Private group may build Cohasset senior center

Nonprofit project will benefit seniors

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2011

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In an unusual effort to address a need during tight times, a private nonprofit organization has volunteered to build a new multimillion-dollar senior center for Cohasset’s burgeoning population of baby boomers, who already make up about 30 percent of this oceanside community.

And because a private group can bypass bidding processes and prevailing-wage limitations required of municipalities, the facility will probably go up more quickly and cost far less money than previously anticipated by the town.

The Social Service League of Cohasset, founded in 1912 to help the needy in the area, had pledged $1 million a year ago toward a town-planned senior center, a project chronically mired in financial difficulty. Officials had been hesitant to propose a tax increase to cash-strapped property owners, and no other money source was in sight.

Although the league’s donation was generous, the town remained millions short of the project’s cost, estimated at $5 million or more. Recently, the nonprofit approached town leaders with a plan to take over the building project. Funds would be raised through a vigorous capital campaign in partnership with the town’s Friends of Elder Affairs. Once the building is complete, it would be leased to the town.

The lease arrangement would be similar to the way the town has provided services to seniors for the past 20 years, operating out of a small area rented in the South Shore Community Service Center.

John Campbell, chairman of the Cohasset Council on Elder Affairs, said the needs of local seniors have long outstripped the town’s capabilities at its present location.

“We share a function room and a kitchen and have a very small office space,’’ Campbell said. “With the area we have, we can only do one activity at a time.’’

The situation is frustrating. “Forward-looking communities around us, like Duxbury and Marshfield, have built new senior centers,’’ he said.

Marshfield’s Council on Aging director, Carol Hamilton, said her town’s seniors were in a similar situation, crammed into a single room in the public library, until 2003, when a new 12,600-square-foot facility opened. “Since then, the attendance has exploded,’’ she said, adding that the latest census indicates that the percentage of townspeople 60 or older has more than doubled in the last 10 years.

“Senior centers are expanding their roles to provide for whatever need there is, and that’s what we’re able to do here,’’ Hamilton said. “Once people come in and see what’s offered, they want to come back.’’

Duxbury built its senior center 10 years ago. Like Marshfield’s, the center offers a long list of services and activities. The Duxbury center also operates a day-care program, a service Cohasset would be able to provide once a new center is built.

Marita Carpenter, Social Service League president, said the construction project, which will be a first for her organization, is in line with the group’s mission.

“I think it’s an amazingly unique model of a community coming together to get things done,’’ Carpenter said. “Our group has been very committed to this project for many years and committed to the elderly in the community for the last 100 years. We realize that Cohasset, like other communities, is up against a tough economy right now.’’

Over the last two years, the town-planned project did show some movement, including the completion of a feasibility study, soil and percolation testing on the target site near the Cohasset Swim Center off Sohier Street, and legislative approval for a necessary land swap. Those actions will benefit the new project, which would be built at the target location.

Glenn Pratt, a Cohasset Building Committee member, said the nonprofit’s offer was the solution to a seemingly unsolvable situation for the town. “With the economy the way it was, we started to realize it was going to take us four or five years, which was way too far out,’’ Pratt said. “Then the Social Service League stepped forward.’’

Campbell said the town will work closely with the league. The Elder Affairs staff will provide insight on the needs of local seniors, and the building committee could offer advice on contractors. “We know a lot of the builders who have done these projects for other towns,’’ Campbell said.

Carpenter said the league is still hammering out project specifics, including cost figures. Members have already begun working on fund-raisers, including an October “prom’’ for all ages. Corporate donations will also be sought.

Campbell is happy there is finally an end in sight.

“We figure it will take a year to raise the money and finalize the plans and a second year to build,’’ he said, predicting the overall cost should drop by about $1 million by doing it privately.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.