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Bos/My Turn: Sweetheart deal? Maybe not

As reported in The Recorder recently, Shelburne Senior Center director Cathy Buntin, commenting on the feasibility of a new home for the senior center in the historic Sweetheart Tea House, said “The Sweetheart has been talked about and considered for years, but we don’t know if it would be possible. This is a very preliminary first step, to see if it’s at all possible.”

She’s more on the money than many people might be aware of.

The senior center’s board of directors has asked Shelburne, Ashfield and Buckland selectmen to seek a Direct Local Technical Assistance grant from the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for a feasibility study to determine whether moving into the more spacious building is a doable project.

How might a feasibility study define a “doable project?”

There is no question that the senior center is bursting at the seams in its present location in the Masonic Building in Shelburne Falls.

There is no question that the senior center has been operating “under serious space constraints for quite a while” according to Penny Spearance, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors.

There is also no question that the senior population in West County will continue to rise at an accelerating rate in the years ahead.

And, as Shelburne Selectman John Payne has observed, the Sweetheart Tea Room is “the cornerstone of the village. And it’s terrible to have the entrance to the town be an empty building.”

QUESTION: So what’s to worry about if the building is feasible from a bricks-and-mortar perspective and the money could somehow be found to rehab the structure?

ANSWER: The senior center could be embarking upon a course that will profoundly change the nature of the organization. And it could conceivably force the senior center to curtail some of its program services or, in a worst case scenario, go out of business.

Now that I have your attention let me make some observations that the study team, if we get to that, might want to pay attention to.

When I retired as director of the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Project back in 2000, a statewide survey of cultural organizations in Massachusetts revealed that public programs — the very thing that an arts facility is supposed to support — had to be sharply reduced after the facility project was completed.

Why? Because the organization had failed to comprehend — in advance — the organizational implications inherent in taking on a major cultural facility project.

The study found that:

∎ The construction costs of bringing an old building into code compliance and renovating it will most likely total about one-half of the true costs of the overall project.

∎ The occupancy costs of using the restored facility may well equal 10 to 15 percent of what will become a much-increased operating budget. This is the red light that worries Rowe’s Brian Donelson as reported in The Recorder; the long range operating costs of the new Rowe elementary school even though the new building itself will be paid for by insurance money.

∎ National and statewide surveys have shown that it costs six to eight times as much to buy and operate space as it does to rent for a year.

∎ A restored and renovated Sweetheart facility will add levels of complexity to the senior center’s operation and could accelerate organizational change that challenges its present capacity.

∎ Current donors to the senior center would most likely contribute to a capital campaign. In the same year, however, they will not contribute to the annual operating fund drive because our personal discretionary income has its limits ... particularly in the present economy.

The study concluded that there were three fundamental weaknesses in cultural facility planning that might also apply to the senior center:

1. A tendency to develop the project in-house;

2. a mismatch of project size to organizational capacity;

3. and the lack of early planning dollars.

With the above as counsel, what a great opportunity for seniors in West County and for Shelburne!

While I have never been in the Sweetheart, the fact that the dining room can seat 200 people, has a number of smaller rooms and separate shop spaces suggests the possibility of earning rental income from small businesses and services that serve the senior population. People providing body work and related services find it very difficult to find affordable rental space in West County. The 200-seat space could be rented out for other community programs such as those that take place at the Shelburne-Buckland Community Center. Might there be an enhanced food service?

In the spirit of “build it and they will come,” what about renaming the senior center (if legally possible) the Hilltown Senior Center? It would be a much more visible and accessible location on Route 2 than “buried” within Shelburne village. Thousands of seniors from other hill towns pass the “cornerstone of the village” every week day presenting an opportunity for greatly expanded visibility and participation by West County’s senior population.

John Bos is a Shelburne resident and may be contacted at

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