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Prime Time: Senior Center: The rest of the story

From left at the Bemidji Senior Center mortgage burning in 1998 are Carl Wolfe, Ann Stennes, Bob Carr (behind), Linda Simonson, Marcy Melberg, Marie Kolstad, Holly Evenwoll, Chuck Melberg, Harry Holand, Tom Van Brunt (holding burning mortgage), Lois Stortroem, Ada Holand, Walt Fenske and Del Mason. Submitted Photo

The smoke had barely cleared after the big mortgage burning event in 1989 and the Bemidji seniors were already thinking outside the box again. Somehow 421 Beltrami just wasn't cutting it for them. The basement was unusable, but the bottom line was the place was way too small for the Senior Center.

So of course they started looking for a bigger and better facility. They found one for sale just a few blocks away that they thought would work for them. The building had been a clothing store owned by Bob Wilson. He was more than happy to sell his property to the seniors, and nice guy that he is, he gave his buyers a very good deal and sold it to them for $110,000.

But so what if it was a good deal? Where would the seniors come up with the cash to make such a purchase? According to Jean Thorne (Senior Center program coordinator) the money came from several sources, including individual donations, a loan from First National Bank, fundraisers and grants.

"Writing grants was an easy sell, as the cause was so worthwhile and the senior programs so vital," she said.

So in 1991, the Wilsons conveyed the building to the Beltrami County Senior Citizens Council on Aging. This property was built somewhere between 1905 and 1906 and between then and 1991 had been operated in a variety of ways, including a theatre and a liquor store. Sometime between 1943 and 1945, the building burned down. The city then built a new facility in its place. That building is the current senior center building today.

So what kind of challenges did this move create for the seniors? According to a news article dated Dec. 30, 1992, the center incurred a heavy debt when it made the move.

"Much of the debt was due to remodeling that was needed to bring the building up to code," Jean Thorne said. "An elevator had to be installed as did a sprinkler system and smoke alarms. The building also needed a new roof and air conditioners."

Then came the big question - how to come up with the money for all the work that needed to be done.

The seniors thought for sure the city or county or both would be sympathetic to such projects and would readily grant their request for $30,000 over a period of three years. Wrong! Social Services would be entering 1993 facing an $83,000 deficit, which meant cuts would need to be made in several services and programs. There would for sure be no money for senior projects. So much for that request. As the saying goes, "You can't get blood out of a turnip."

As Jean commented, "We're one of the few senior centers in the state that doesn't receive some kind of support from local government but right now the money just isn't there."

Turns out it's the same old story today. Our senior center receives no federal, state, county or city financial support. We do receive some township donations and are thankful to the city for waiving our sewer and water charges.

So did these innovative seniors have a plan B? It seemed like a pretty scary time to say the least. How would they pay the bills? Rent from 421 Beltrami would cover the monthly mortgage payment of $1,085.55 on their new facility, but they still had to raise $5,333 a month through fundraising to pay the remaining $90,000 renovation debt and operating expenses.

But according to a news article dated Jan. 31, 1993, it could have been even worse. Jean Thorne said, "Total renovation costs would have been $250,000, but that cost was knocked down to about $160,000, thanks to 72 volunteers who put in more than 7,000 labor hours helping to bring the building up to code. So what they really could use would be a generous benefactor to step up to the plate and pay off the renovation debt. But no such luck and there was no point writing anymore grants as there was no money for renovation projects."

So did the seniors bite off more than they could chew by moving from 421 Beltrami to their new location? That seemed to be the consensus in 1993.

Jean believes there was no choice.

"We had to move or the program would have died," she said. "We were starting to turn people away. There wasn't enough seating to accommodate the nutrition program, and the building was not handicapped accessible. Since moving to 216 3rd St. participation and membership have grown. Now, about 125 people come to the senior center every day."

Jean was optimistic. She said, "We are a strong organization, we are run by people who have lived through two world wars and a depression. We know how to live within a budget, but it takes a lot of pancakes to meet expenses."

As luck would have it, the center eventually received some very generous support from a variety of sources. The senior craft shop (which was set up to give seniors in the area an outlet for their hand crafted items and to provide added income for the center) donated $2,000 to help with the reroofing project. The Neilson Foundation, Otter Tail Power Company, Weibolt Electric and Peterson Sheet Metal also helped with the roofing and air conditioning projects. And, of course, there was some mighty senior volunteer fundraising going on. There were $5 spaghetti dinners with all the trimmings, strawberry festivals, corn feeds, craft and bake sales, chocolate extravaganzas, a County Fair booth, Christmas gift wrapping at the mall, recycled greeting card project, dances, bus trips and donut days. One innovative fund raiser involved asking people to buy a square foot of the senior center for $10. If you bought one, you got a fancy document to prove it.

So between fundraising, individual donations and funding through numerous grants and charities, the United Way being the biggest contributor, the senior center carried on the business of meeting the needs of seniors in our area.

According to a 1993 news article, "The senior center is attracting many more people with its expanded programs. There are gardening and crocheting classes, and of course, card playing and bingo! The senior craft shop has also brought increased traffic. The RSVP program, transportation program, AARP and safe driving programs are all available at the senior center."

It would seem that the senior center had something for everyone.

Fast-forward to 1996; a news article titled "Senior Center in Good Shape" reads, "The old senior citizens center building at 421 Beltrami Ave. was sold to Formalities, which was a relief to many aging council members!"

I guess things were indeed looking up. The article reported the center's financial condition as stable. Senior Center Coordinator Pat Bartels told the council, "We owe more than we have in the past, but overall we're looking good."

In 1997 the seniors celebrated five years in their new home. They were going to make it at 216 3rd St. Minutes of the Sept. 23, 1997, annual meeting read like this: "President Ugelstad reported the year had been a good one for the center and thanked everyone for their hard work." The annual financial report was given and it was reported that "an extra $10,000 had been paid on the mortgage and if monthly payments remain the same, the mortgage will be paid off in July 2000." Talk about good news!

But there's even more good news. Now I'm reading the minutes of the Sept. 22, 1998, annual meeting. "President Tom Van Brunt gave a welcome, reviewed the activities of the year which he stated was a good year for the center."

All the fund raising projects were going well but the biggest news of the year was that the center received $30,000 from The Dorothy Breen Estate and that was just about enough to pay off the mortgage! How lucky was that? Just think! In just nine years, these seniors bought and paid for two senior centers!

On April 25, 1998, the 216 3rd St. mortgage went up in smoke just as the 421 Beltrami one did in 1989. Tom Van Brunt recalled that special day.

"We all went outside in front of the senior center and we used this big pan," he said.

Tom was president of the Senior Center at that time, so he had the honor of torching the document. So much for the 1990s. And another decade ends on a happy note.

Next Time: "Winding things up."

Ann Daley and Pat Kroeplin are Paul Bunyan Senior Activity Center volunteers.