The Highland City Council has agreed to hire an architect to create a plan for a new senior citizens center. However, how fast it could get built is unclear as council members have expressed concerns on funding construction.
Highland's senior citizens really need a new facility, according to Elmer Emig, president of the Weinheimer Senior Citizens Club.
"The most vulnerable of our seniors are in need of a place to call their own and their home," Emig told the council April 16 before members voted a $7,000 architectural design contract.
For the past year and a half, Mayor Joe Michaelis and City Manager Mark Latham have been working with the senior citizens to formulate a plan for the project.
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"This is needed," Latham said.
The community's seniors currently utilize the Weinheimer Community Center for their activities. However, according to Emig, the 66-year-old building has become a hindrance to senior programming and a liability to the aging population.
When the building was first built, the American with Disabilities did not exist. Navigating the building wheelchairs, walkers, and canes is almost impossible, Emig said, adding it also has inadequate parking, which causes their members to walk long distances and discourages them from attending events.
"In the last two years, five seniors coming to our meetings have fallen," Emig said.
Of those members, Emig said one. He was hospitalized for a month.
Emig also mentioned that the seniors have to share the facility, which limits their hours. Emig said other nearby communities — like Trenton, Marine, New Douglas, Okawville, O'Fallon, Belleville, Swansea, Alton, Shiloh, Caseyville and Granite City — all have separate facilities for their seniors.
"Just to name a few,"he said.
Emig also said that if the seniors have their own facility, they could also utilize programming provided from Southwestern Illinois College.
"We need a place where activities can keep our minds and bodies active," Emig said.
But, while the council members unanimously voted to pass the architectoral contract, they also voiced apprehension on moving forward with the project.
Councilman Aaron Schwarz began the conversation asking to hear more about the plan. He said he felt, if the council approved the architectural contract, they would be locked in with little to no details.
"I fear trying to bite off more than we can chew," Schwarz said.
In response to Schwarz's questions, Latham relayed what the city knows about the plan thus far.
While there is no design as of yet, the city expects the center to be located on the western side of the Korte Recreation Center on city-owned property. So far, Latham estimated that the facility will be about 4,600 square feet, with one large room for banquets and such, a kitchen and other separate activity and meeting rooms. The facility will need additional parking, and possibly a covered drive-up drop off. Latham estimated the project to cost about $400,000.
"My goal is that we fund the whole facility," Latham said.
Overall, funding needs to be explored more, according to Latham. But, he hopes grants, in-kind services and possibly involving the Southern Illinois University Construction program could help to neutralize the cost.
On April 2, the city held a public hearing where many local seniors voiced their approval of the project. The hearing was also a requirement for the city to apply for a community development block grant from Madison County. The grant would give the city $100,000 to aid with project costs. However, Latham said before the city could secure more funding, they needed to have a some sort of design to put forward.
Emig also relayed that, after initial word of the project got out, two businesses have contacted him expressing a desire to help.
"I think there are people that are concerned about the aging population in town," Latham said.
After Latham's explanation, Schwarz expressed that the city's plan to build a new combined public safety facility should be the city's No. 1 priority. He voiced some concerns that adding additional projects could have a negative impact on the facility. Specifically, Schwarz mentioned that he felt the city should be more prudent when applying for grant funding, as getting funding in one area could take away from another.
"They try to spread the wealth and touch as many constituents as possible," Schwarz said.
Councilwoman Peggy Bellm also voiced her own concerns.
"I, personally, am not in favor of the city staff with their hands out asking for donations for special projects," Bellm said.
While she said the center is a great idea, and she would love to see it, Bellm agreed with Schwarz that the city already has its hands in many other projects, and the city needs to be sure it can afford it first.
"I'm not convinced yet that we can afford to do this," Bellm said.
Councilman Rick Frey called the project "good" and "worthwhile." But he also sided with Schwarz and Bellm, saying that the city has a ton of projects.
"I'm concerned, also," Frey said.
Councilman Neill Nicolaides was silent during the meeting, but afterward he voiced similar a opinion, though he said that he think it is a great idea.
"There is so much going on now that we should finish a few projects before we start something else," Nicolaides said.
Latham said that he will meet with the architects soon, and he is hopeful that the preliminary design for the center will be complete in the second week of May. Once the design is finished, additional funding will be sought, so the project can keep moving forward, Latham said.