On Wednesday morning, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz held a public meeting before an audience of several hundred residents to discuss his proposal to move the Northampton Parks and Recreation into the Senior Center at 67 Conz Street.
The mayor, speaking in the Great Room of the Senior Center, explained his administration's decision process in selecting the Senior Center as the Parks and Rec department's "temporary home." The department has held its offices at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School at 80 Locust Street for nearly twenty years, but this January the school did not agree to renew the department's contract for the space.
With six months to find a new home for the department, Mayor Narkewicz said he explored several options around town, looking specifically for town-owned space that would be rent-free and would not need to be upgraded and made handicap accessible. After three months of searching the mayor announced in March that the Senior Center's second Great Room, originally built to host a senior-citizen Social Day daycare program that was never implemented, would be converted to a temporary office space for the department.
The backlash from residents, especially seniors who use the center regularly, has been loud. Protestors lined up outside the center this morning as Mayor Narkewicz arrived, bearing signs and posters that argued for the mayor to look for his space elsewhere - that space in the senior center was already cramped enough; that the senior population in Northampton is growing each year; that the center was originally built for seniors, and should be reserved for seniors.
But the mayor had his own poster, with the full blueprint of the center. For roughly the first half of the meeting Narkewicz laid out his full rationale for selecting the space, including its coming with free rent and its own entrance, exit, restroom, and reception facilities separate from the rest of the senior center. He argued that in absence of open town property the only alternative would be to dip into the town budget to pay for a lease to a private office, including upkeep and (possibly) an upgrade to handicap accessibility. Since the section of the Senior Center in question is almost completely separable from the rest of the center through temporary walls and dividers, the mayor argued, the space would be the best fit.
The seniors in attendance didn't seem swayed. Complaints ranged from concerns about an even more congested parking lot, which seniors argued was already a problem at the center, to arguments over whether or not the Senior Center has enough space to accommodate all who use it as it is.
Several residents offered alternative ideas for spaces the Parks and Rec department could move to. Although receptive, the mayor each with a reason why the suggestion would not work - either too expensive or not handicap accessible.
The mayor re-iterated several times to attendees that the decision lay in his hands, and that frustration should be taken out on him rather than on the Parks and Rec department, who did not choose to leave Smith Vocational, or on the Senior Center, the administration of which has not supported the move.
Though this meeting kept with the mayor's overall pledge toward transparency in municipal government, the most overwhelming complaint from seniors in attendance was their own lack of involvement in the process. Those who protested on behalf of local seniors, who had not been consulted before the mayor made the deal, called for Narkewicz to create a committee specially designed to find another, more permanent home for the Parks and Rec department.
So although it was appropriate for the mayor to hold a public forum for seniors to voice complaints over the decision, the move is basically a done deal already. The Parks and Rec department has until June 2nd to be out of their current space at Smith Vocational School, and the mayor affirmed today that they will more than likely be moving into the Senior Center by that date. Where the department will finally end up, however, remains to be seen.