Study for new South County Senior Center yet to be completed as deadline looms

U.S. Rep Jim McGovern, second from the left, tours the former South Deerfield Congregational Church in July 2022. Despite the South County Senior Center’s three member towns having received a $75,000 grant in December 2022 to conduct a feasibility study on the church to see if it could serve as the center’s long-term home, a study has yet to be conducted as the grant’s expiration date approaches this summer.

U.S. Rep Jim McGovern, second from the left, tours the former South Deerfield Congregational Church in July 2022. Despite the South County Senior Center’s three member towns having received a $75,000 grant in December 2022 to conduct a feasibility study on the church to see if it could serve as the center’s long-term home, a study has yet to be conducted as the grant’s expiration date approaches this summer. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-10-2024 5:50 PM

Despite the South County Senior Center’s three member towns having received a $75,000 grant in December 2022 to conduct a feasibility study on the South Deerfield Congregational Church to see if it could serve as the center’s long-term home, a study has yet to be conducted as the grant’s expiration date approaches this summer.

As the Senior Center continues its yearslong search for a home, Board of Oversight members said the study “fell through the cracks,” but they are making an effort to expend the Efficiency and Regionalization grant before the June 30 deadline. Grants awarded in this program must be spent within 18 months.

Deerfield Selectboard and Board of Oversight member Trevor McDaniel said they are anticipating getting the study process going “right away,” as Assistant Town Administrator Chris Nolan and Planning and Economic Development Coordinator Christopher Dunne are going to take the lead. The Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) will also provide assistance.

“We’re still hoping to spend it,” McDaniel said. “I think all of that’s going to get rolling pretty quickly here.”

A discussion around the grant and the study was held in the weeks following its disbursement in December 2022, but action progressed slowly, as a scope of work was never laid out. Then, in May 2023, a joint meeting between the Board of Oversight and the Deerfield Selectboard was scheduled and several members in attendance stated their frustration with the slow-moving process.

“I’m really frustrated,” Whately Selectboard member and now Board of Oversight Chair Joyce Palmer-Fortune said in May. “It just seems to get delayed and delayed.”

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While a plan and priorities were laid out at that meeting, no study ever went forward.

“A feasibility study has not been conducted on behalf of the South County Senior Center, and we are hoping one will be completed in the near future,” said Senior Center Director Jennifer Remillard. “We’re currently working on a request for proposals within Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately for space.”

McDaniel said one of the driving factors, as is always the case for small communities, is “town capacity.”

“There was changeover at FRCOG, and we got swamped with 8 inches of water in one day,” McDaniel said, referencing July rainstorms that ravaged town roads and took much of the Selectboard and town staff’s attention over the last six months.

Speaking Friday, McDaniel and other members of the Deerfield Selectboard said the priorities remain the same for the feasibility study as they seek to answer four questions — is the church environmentally safe, how much would remediation work cost, will the church meet the Senior Center’s present program needs and will it serve the growing center’s future needs?

The board in May also wanted to see what other options were available for a space, but those seem limited.

As of right now, the Senior Center is still considering the South Deerfield Congregational Church — especially now that state earmarks and Eaglebrook School have helped fund repairs in anticipation of Tilton Library moving in while its construction project progresses — as well as the former Sinauer Associates/Oxford University Press building at 23 Plumtree Road in Sunderland.

The South County Senior Center currently leases space at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in South Deerfield and at 22 Amherst Road in downtown Sunderland. The center has been without a permanent home since the pandemic, as the former Senior Center, housed in the 1888 Building on North Main Street in South Deerfield, closed in March 2020 and then remained closed following the discovery of asbestos and other contaminants.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.