Community Engagement and Planning for the Reading Center for Active Living (ReCal) Report

Reading, MA – The Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging, within the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, released their final report culminating in a yearlong community visioning effort to investigate the needs, interests, preferences, and opinions of Reading residents regarding the possibility of a new community or senior center.   

A 2017 Needs Assessment conducted by the UMass Gerontology team concluded that the existing senior center building, built 30 years ago as a converted 140-year-old former Fire Station, known also as the Pleasant Street Center (PSC) is not meeting the needs of the community.  The constraints of the 6,000 s.f. PSC (one of the smallest among peer communities) were limiting the operation both in terms of the programs that can be offered and the number of participants that can be served. 

The Reading Center for Active Living Committee (ReCalc) was created by the Select Board in late 2021 to explore the current and future needs of the Community and initiate planning for a potential new Senior/Community Center. The Town hired the UMass Gerontology Institute in early 2022 to lead a community engagement effort so that there is public participation included in the earliest stages of plan development. The work of ReCalc as well as the UMass report will inform future planning and help create a vision for a new Senior/Community Center. 

the UMass Gerontology team collaborated with ReCalc, the Council on Aging, and staff in developing and executing a community outreach plan to gather community input into the planning process in a variety of ways.  

The outreach included:

  • 3 Community Forums (in person and remote, recorded on RCTV)
    • Forums were attended by 170 people and general feedback from the forums focused on brainstorming ideas for a new Center for Active Living, summarized below: 
      • Support for an age-inclusive space but maintaining dedicated attention and space for older adults, expanding intergenerational activities
      • Flexible space; more intense physical activities; social and health services; high quality food and a modern kitchen; more varied programming; adult day programming; sufficient parking and improved transportation options; private meeting space; no cost/low-cost programs and services.
      • Existing PSC is much loved despite its shortcomings; however, discussion of a renovation/expansion was not favored, and a new location was preferred.  A Downtown location was most desirable including the potential acquisition of another property (e.g., Walgreens).  Participants were open to other alternatives outside of Downtown especially if parking and transportation were factored in (e.g., Town owned land at Symonds Way and Oakland Road; Market Basket commercial area).
      • Short-term adaptations and expanded programming until a new space is developed
      • Enhance communication about programs and services in the community
      • How to pay for this and weigh this against competing demands
      • Inventory existing resources before committing to a new center.
      • Many other ideas and suggestions were made that relate to what programs and services are desirable in a new center as well as what type of center would be supported.
      • Transparency and Community Engagement is a priority
  • Stakeholder Focus GroupsA total of 54 people participated in 4 focus groups (Town Staff, Rising Seniors, Resident and Volunteers Stakeholders).  Focus Groups were held to gather rich feedback from key community members.  Their ideas for a new center are summarized below:
    • Town staff supported the concept of a multigenerational community center to better serve the community and “meet a lot more faces” and “widen the front door to municipal services” and offer programs that are intergenerational.
    • Expand wellness programming
    • Access to healthy food 
    • Social space, including a place to “drop in” 
    • Opening on nights and weekends to provide access to people who work when the PSC is open
    • Volunteer opportunities; low cost/no cost programs; serving needy lower income populations
    • Sufficient parking and easy access to a new center along with more transportation options were emphasized.
    • Branding a new center was highlighted in a way that attracts people and removes any stigma of going to a “senior center”.
    • Add staff to meet the demands of the community (also stated at public forums)
  • Community Survey went live after Labor Day and a postcard mailing with the QR Code was included to facilitate the on-line survey. Paper surveys were also distributed throughout Town and collection boxes made available for ease of returning. A phone in option was also made available.  A 7% response rate was achieved with 1470 surveys completed.  Key findings in brief:
    • 48% of survey respondents preferred an all-ages community center (responses varied by age group).  72% of younger respondents supported this idea.
    • 68% of survey respondents reported that they would be likely or very likely to utilize a new senior/community center.
    • When asked what they prefer in a new center 21% said it could be an opportunity for community cohesion and inclusion and supported the idea.  Others offered specific suggestions related to the space and plan for a new center.
    • 1 in 5 who answered the open-ended question resisted the notion of a new center noting concerns about the cost and impact on their tax bill; other priorities (fix the sidewalks); existing resources that meet the needs.
    • Impact on residential tax bill/cost considerations – some supported a modest increase in taxes while 31% said no increase.  Modest increases were acceptable to 17% (less than $100 per year) and 24% ($100 – $200 per year).  Another 12% would support a tax increase of $201 – $300 per year.
    • Multi-purpose spaces for both large and small group programs
    • Area for indoor exercise classes
    • Café or meal space
    • Outdoor seating like benches and tables and chairs for outdoor dining

UMass recommendations for the Town of Reading:

  • Expand community awareness through active communication & public education about the planning process:
    • Increase awareness of and need for a Center for Active Living.  Offer tours of the existing center highlighting limitations and work with elected/appointed officials to spread the message.
    • Create an inventory of existing programs and services available to Reading residents throughout the community, not just those offered through the Town.
    • Expand on existing collaboration among service providers throughout the community to improve coordination of programs and services.
  • Improve accessibility and programming to ensure equitable access:
    • Revisit hours of operation of the PSC to identify ways to serve working residents
    • Review transportation and parking options to improve access (e.g., satellite parking with shuttle transportation)
    • Consult with professionals on ways to improve access and make inclusive design modifications to the existing PSC.
    • Maintain core PSC programs as well as food/nutrition services, drop-in space, inter-generational programming and partnerships with other town resources.
  • Plan for a new center including staffing levels consistent with demand

The findings from this study are clear that additional community space in Reading is desired and that to meet the diverse elder and human service needs of the population, different space is needed.

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