By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
On a weekday afternoon, a group of women filled the tables at the Missoula Senior Center for a game of pinochle, while a free tax session provided by AARP played out in the adjoining room. One man took to the piano while another came looking for a walker.
For more than 40 years, the center has called this building at 705 S. Higgins Ave. home. It has served several generations of senior citizens over the years, and the memories still decorate the center’s walls.
But now, faced with an aging facility and a declining membership, the Missoula Senior Center may be forced to sell its building to make ends meet. With a monthly operating deficit of roughly $3,000 and a long list of repairs, it’s rapidly depleting its savings and could be forced to close within the next two years.
“Our reality is very simple – we don’t have the money to keep this place going,” said Michelle Hastings, the center’s executive director. “It’s expensive to run this place. The power bills alone are $1,500 to $1,600 a month. It’s a big chunk of money that comes out of our account every month, just to pay the power bill.”
Hastings, who has served as director for the past five years, said the center’s budget has been on a steady decline for a number of years, even with its limited staff. It currently employs just five people, three of them full time. The rest are volunteers and even those are in short supply.
This week, given the lack of volunteers, the center had to close the Underground Thrift Shop, one of the center’s few revenue-producing ventures. The thrift shop brings in around $30,000 annually, but without volunteers to run it, it was closed for the day.
“We have a savings account with DA Davidson that was left with us as a bequest years ago, and it made us some money,” said Hastings. “But we have used a lot of that now. We have to hit that once or twice a year to get through.”
The center doesn’t get support from the city, Hastings said, though it does get help from Missoula Aging Services and its nutrition program. That helps pay for the center’s food and its cook.
Other than that, the center relies on revenue it generates through membership dues and events, such as tai chi and yoga classes. Card games are $2 and tax sessions are free through AARP.
From time to time, someone might donate their taxes to the center.
“We do receive donations,” said Chris Brenna, assistant director. “We’ll send out little envelopes a couple times a year. We’ll get some money, but it’s just not sustainable.”
Looking at the financial reality, Hastings said the center will have to close within two years. To avoid that, it hopes to move instead to a smaller and more affordable location.
Recently, Hastings said, the center hired an appraiser and one interested buyer has already stepped forward. Hastings is now searching for a real estate agent to represent the center in any future transaction.
A meeting is planned for April, at which time the center’s members will be provided the financial information, including all offers on the building. Selling the property and moving to a new location will require approval from a majority of members.
“We’re considering selling the building and moving to a smaller location if we can find one,” said Hastings. “The board just voted yesterday (Tuesday) to find our own real estate agent and see where we’re at. Because we’re a membership organization, the members have to agree to sell.”
At this time last year, Hastings said, the center claimed 380 members, though it now sits at roughly 260. Fifty years ago, she said, seniors approached aging differently, and when they retired, they held potlucks at the center and worked as volunteers.
“It’s not like that anymore,” she said. “Those who do come aren’t able to do those kind of things anymore. The people now in their 50s and 60s are still working, raising their kids, raising grandkids. Society has changed, so we don’t get that influx of membership that we got before, so what do we do?”
Considering the move is difficult, even for Hastings. The seniors who utilize the center have worked hard, paid their taxes and raised their kids. They deserve to have a place to go, she said, though they may now have to explore a future at a different location.
Operating at a deficit doesn’t help address the building’s ongoing maintenance needs. The structure was likely built in the late 1920s, Hastings believes, and it’s in need of costly repairs. They recently replaced a motor on the boiler when the refrigerator went out. The exhaust fan broke, and the roof leaks in places.
“My goal is to make sure the senior center stays a great place, and to make sure there’s a place for seniors to go to,” Hastings said. “But we can’t afford to stay here. Our next step is getting our own agent to represent our best interests. Maybe they’ll have someplace for us to go.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at email@example.com