Seniors made their stride into the Centre Region Senior Center in Nittany Mall last month on a chilly Tuesday morning, probably at a brisker pace than usual.
They were bundled up in heavier clothes to battle crisp 30 mph gusts outside, which was amplified by an early morning temperature of about 50 degrees. A few more walked in minutes later into a 3,000-square-foot space where the center is temporarily located until renovations are made to a space more than twice its size next to Sears.
The morning crowd is growing of late, according to staff of the center. The afternoon gatherings are getting bigger, too.
As they say, it’s all about location.
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The center, for those 55 and up, relocated to the mall Sept. 1, and the move was accompanied by an immediate influx of seniors who had never been to the center, because they hadn’t heard of it, or in years, because they didn’t want to travel downtown.
“There have been so many more walk-ins,” center staff assistant Kim Hacker said. “They love it, because it’s easier to do some other things while they’re out. It’s easier to walk here, they can get their hair cut, pick up some things they want, because the mall has easier access. When you’re downtown there are the hills, sometimes uneven sidewalks, and here it’s just perfect for them to walk wherever they want to.”
Staff estimated that one or two new people walked into the downtown location on any given week.
“There have actually been 12 that registered in the first week and 30 in two weeks, so we have 30 new people in our first two weeks here,” center supervisor Cindy Stahlman said. “That’s a whole lot, and a lot of it has to do with our location. People didn’t like to drive downtown and pay to park, so here there’s free parking and easier accessibility, so they’ve been delighted with us being here.”
The surge of participation inside the center has given the staffers more work to juggle, but that’s a good thing.
It’s what they envisioned, particularly for when their brand-new 7,000-square-foot space opens, which won’t happen overnight. Stahlman said the space by Sears could “ideally” be renovated by early 2016, or more realistically by Easter.
“It’s only been July since we decided to move here,” Stahlman said. “It’s been a pretty fast transition. We were on a lease until 2017 downtown. Due to all the construction around us and the roads being closed or one way, we asked if we could get out of the lease. Simultaneously, someone came in that was interested in renting downtown, and in another meeting they said we could get out of the lease and that we had to be out by Sept. 1. We had about three months to find a place and move.”
Mall management, they said, has made a hectic move smoother.
“It was chaotic, but a good chaos,” Stahlman said. “The mall couldn’t be more receptive and accommodating. Any time we have had an issue in front of us they have worked with us.”
The collaborative efforts between the center and mall means that activities such as line dancing, Healthy Steps in Motion, tai chi and bridge and services such as blood screening and guest speakers can go on.
Staff also hopes when things calm down there will be opportunities to collaborate with businesses in the mall. Bon-Ton and Penn State parks and recreation have already stepped up to be partners with the center for a fashion show.
Even more challenging than the actual move has been keeping up with new seniors interested in joining the fun. Staff hopes more volunteers step up to help.
“While we’re doing our programming we keep having walk-ins,” Stahlman said. “Often we’re meeting with new people walking in and we’re trying to keep a program going, so that’s a good challenge to have.”
“So that means we are looking for volunteer help,” Hacker added. “We have been working a little from home, because there’s more to do here.”
Staff hopes to be able to replicate the hominess of their temporary location in their eventual permanent home. There will be a process involved, though, and a lot of factors will have to be balanced. Renovations to the space next to Sears haven’t begun, because architects plan to talk to some seniors about what they’d like in the new center.
In the meantime, the center’s band has been practicing at Juniper Village at Brookline during the transition, the mall’s community room has been used for the center’s line dancers, and a catty-corner room in the mall has been used for activities like Healthy Steps and weight lifting.
“We’ll have some space in there that’s nice and welcoming, a big space for activities and we’re just looking forward to having our whole family back together again,” Stahlman said.
“It is kind of sad to see us split up a little bit,” Hacker added.
It will be, by comparison, a magical moment when the new space’s renovations are complete and it opens, marking a new era for the center, a reunion for all of the center’s longtime seniors and a meet and greet for all of the fresh faces that have joined lately.