The 15-member group, led by Mayor Mick Cornett, City Manager Jim Couch and MAPS 3 Director David Todd, checked out the programs and equipment of that city’s Patrick Henry Hays Senior Citizens Center.
Facility director Charley Baxter and North Little Rock Mayor Joe A. Smith led the OKC assemblage July 9 on a tour of the two-story, 60,000-square-foot center that opened in 2003. The senior center boasts two swimming pools, a 5,000-square-foot ballroom and kitchen, a computer lab, a fitness and weight room, a library and several activity rooms that allow for billiards, table tennis, card games and more.
Cornett said he walked away from the visit hoping Oklahoma City can duplicate that level of success. When the North Little Rock center opened, 1,000 people signed up as members. Ten years later, its membership exceeds 18,000, including 924 in 2012 alone.
“I have visited a handful of centers, and this is the best,” the mayor said. “I see it as a good model, but anything we do has to be adapted to us, and it will take on a life of its own.”
As the group toured the center, several seniors playing billiards or working out expressed well wishes for the OKC project.
“It’s more than physical activity,” Cornett said. “It’s social activity. It’s about mental health and happiness.”
In the wake of economic woes and the 2008 recession, many cities began cutting — and, in some cases, eliminating — funding for senior and youth centers.
“Cities have exited that part of the civic infrastructure,” Cornett said. “When that happens, you start to lose your sense of community. With what we’re doing, we have a chance to bring that community back into the city.”
He said the timing couldn’t be better.
“We better get ready for this onslaught of baby boomers,” said the mayor. “We need to be on the front end and plan for this generation and be prepared for an older community. We want seniors to remain active and engaged.”
Blair Schoeb, a member of the MAPS 3 Senior Wellness Center subcommittee and part of the OKC delegation, was particularly impressed by the Hays center’s attendance figures. It averages about 750 members daily.
“It would be pretty great to hit those numbers,” he said. “They’re pulling in a high percentage of seniors. If we’re close to those numbers, we’ll be doing fine.”
So far, the Oklahoma City Council has decided to negotiate with two potential operating partners for the wellness centers: the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and Putnam City Baptist Church. Still, negotiations are on hold until early August.
The MAPS 3 plan calls for four wellness centers at a total cost of $57 million.
The health department’s proposal shows one of the centers would be built at the agency’s new Northeast Regional Health and Wellness Campus on N.E. 63rd. Meanwhile, the church proposed to build the second wellness center on its current campus on N. Rockwell Avenue.
Unlike the senior center in North Little Rock, the health department and Putnam City Baptist Church have pledged to operate the centers without a government subsidy. The Arkansas facility receives $600,000 from the city annually as part of its funding.
Although operational funding isn’t likely to be a problem, Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis Jr. said he has major concerns about public transportation to and from the wellness centers, especially the one that would be run by the city-county health department.
During the July 2 council meeting, he admonished health department director Gary Cox because the new facility was built away from a Metro Transit bus line. Pettis said a bus line is necessary for seniors in the northeast part of the city.
Baxter said public transportation has not been a problem for seniors getting to the Hays center. He said the majority of seniors get there by driving, walking or bicycling, and that only a handful ride the city bus.
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