By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Martha Campbell calls her experience of walking into the former Prescott Elementary School an “epiphany.”
Standing in the hallway that leads from the main entrance to the gymnasium, the Groton Council on Aging director could envision senior citizens enjoying all sorts of activities inside individual classrooms. Staff could consult seniors about their health and financial issues in private, she said. The gym could easily fit hundreds of people for a dinner party. And, the former upstairs classrooms would be perfect for senior apartments.
“Maybe the Prescott School could be the future senior center,” Campbell said as she stood in front of the Prescott School Reuse Committee Tuesday night. “If Prescott is not the right place, what would be the right place?”
Campbell pitched her idea to convert the former school building in downtown into a senior complex to include a senior center, housing units as well as space for retail stores geared toward senior citizens.
Campbell’s proposal is among several the committee has heard for use of the former school. Other ideas include a charter school, affordable-housing units and a theater.
Saying those older than 60 are expected to make up more than half of the town population by 2025, Campbell stressed the importance of moving the senior center to a central location to provide better access. The existing center in West Groton is highly used by both seniors and other community members, and it’s already running out of space, she said. The main floor can only fit 110 people, for example, forcing the senior center to limit participation for some events, Campbell said. The building also lacks individual space for privacy.
Campbell also said that having a senior center and housing on Main Street should generate needed foot traffic downtown. The complex could accommodate such businesses as a beauty salon and a consignment store, which would bring vibrancy, she said.
The senior center director envisions the town pursuing a Community Development Block Grant for the project, with the revenue from apartment and retail space rents to help make the complex become self-sustainable.
Committee member Russell Burke said the Department of Housing and Urban Development gives priorities to poorer communities for distribution of CDBG grants. The grants are also available for housing rehabilitation, not for creation of new housing, Burke said.
Steve Webber, a former Council on Aging member who sat in the audience, said the Prescott building can provide additional commercial space downtown.
“The Prescott will be much better used if there were a bunch of businesses,” Webber said, adding that the Groton Country Club could be a good future location for the senior center.
Selectman and Prescott Committee member Anna Eliot said the Economic Development Committee on which she serves will soon submit a letter to the Prescott Committee to advocate for the reuse of the building for retail purposes.
But Marcia Synnott, 71, who lives next to Prescott, said a central location is crucial to seniors who do not drive. She wants a livable, affordable downtown with cultural space.
Michael Scelzi, a senior citizen who sat in the audience, said he remembers how the user population for the senior center in Salem, N.H., where he once lived, tripled after it relocated to the downtown.
Committee Chairman Halsey Platt said the panel is now preparing a report to update the selectmen on the progress it has made.