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Senior center left in lurch as grant pipeline runs dry

Construction of a new center for seniors in Swain County has ground to a halt because the project has run out of money.

The 6,000-square-foot facility, which sits atop a hill next to the new Swain County jail, will remain just a shell of a building until the nonprofit that operates the senior center, Community Services of Swain, is able to secure grants to finish the project.

Finding the money to complete the center, however, may be a challenge. Foundations that have traditionally provided dollars for such projects are tightening their purse strings in light of the economic downturn.

“With the way the economy is, the funders have all started to pull their heads in,” said Ken Mills, chairman of Community Services of Swain and the county’s economic development director.

The nonprofit needs $150,000 to complete the center, Mills said, but has applied for close to $1 million in grants, hedging its bets that enough comes through. So far, they’ve secured one $7,000 grant — far from the total needed.

Rejections have been common, and most sound the same, said Mills. Foundations cite economic conditions and restrictions on their investment pools as reasons they denied the request.

Senior Center executive director Betty Seay is disappointed in the delay. She’s been lobbying for a new building for 20 years.

“We need it desperately,” she said. “We’re packed in so tight, and our programs have grown over the years. There’s just not enough space.”

Currently, the center is housed in Swain’s historic courthouse and struggles with tight space and a host of age-related problems. Seniors eat, play bingo, exercise, sing, hold special programs and have health department checkups in 1,400 square feet of space.

Parking is also an issue, and Seay says she’s losing some of her regulars who come for meals because they can’t find a parking spot in the busy downtown district.

Seay thought her dream of a new senior center had come to fruition when construction started last year.

“The commissioners told us we had enough grants to build a building. However, there’s a glitch — we can’t get into it as planned because we’ve run out of money,” she said.

A bird in the hand

When the county broke ground on the senior center, it had grants totalling $250,000 already in hand. County leaders knew it wasn’t enough, but decided to start with hopes the rest would come through as they went.

There is question of whether Community Services of Swain should have gone ahead with construction of the Center without all the funding lined up. But the group says it didn’t want to take too long to start the project and risk losing some of the grants it had already acquired.

“We didn’t want them to turn around and say we couldn’t have the money because we were taking too long,” Mills said. “We knew if we could get it to this point, and get the building finished on the outside, that’s a leap in getting the project finished.”

However, “we’re sick about the way the timing went,” he added.

Mills said a half-finished project could hopefully give the county leverage in securing a grant.

Right now, the nonprofit can do little except wait for a grant to come through so the senior center can be completed.

“We’ve got all these applications out, and right now we’re in a holding pattern,” Mills said. “If we don’t see something in 60 days, we go back through the cycles again.”

If grants don’t come through, Mills isn’t sure what the organization will do except delay the project further. There’s a possibility the county could pitch in, since it benefits many Swain residents. That option was discussed at one point, but now, the county is strapped for cash.

“If we needed to invest county dollars, we were going to do that,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the county commissioners. “But times is hard, and we just cannot get the money right now. We don’t want to put ourselves in a bind.”

County Manager Kevin King said the county could potentially lease the property from the nonprofit, freeing them up to get a loan to finish the project. Jones said, though, that loans could be hard to come by.

“There’s no money right now to borrow or anything,” he said. “In other years, they would have borrowed money, but the economic times has hit us right now, as it’s hit every other county.”

Community Services of Swain hopes learn whether they were successful in securing additional funding in the next couple of months. Meanwhile, seniors have had to cancel plans for a Christmas open house in the new senior center facility.

“We were going to go in for Christmas and have an open house, and we got all excited about it,” Seay said.

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