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County mulls plans for Bigfork Community Center

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | March 10, 2020 1:00 AM

Plans to improve the Bigfork Community Center and discussion about funding improvements was the focus of a recent meeting of representatives from the Flathead County/Area IX Agency on Aging and with the Flathead County commissioners.

The center, formerly known as the Bigfork Senior Center, is at least 60 years old and is fraught with issues ranging from aging components such as the roof and electrical wiring, to its failure to comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards and limited parking, which forces many visitors to park farther away and walk uphill to reach the center.

In January, the county received a $45,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Montana Department of Commerce to fund an architectural study that would examine a number of options to remedy the center. These solutions could include rebuilding on-site, renovating an existing building, or constructing a new facility in a new location — or another fix not yet identified.

In 2015 the county largely ruled out renovations to the existing site due to high costs. That year, the county received $400,000 in public facilities monies and had planned to make ADA improvements to multiple area senior centers, including the one in Bigfork. But estimates to renovate the Bigfork center came back in the mid-$300,000s — and that wouldn’t have addressed some of the major issues such as the limited parking and challenging configuration of the building, nor would it have supported all of the ADA improvements needed.

“At that point, we didn’t keep going,” county Grant Coordinator Whitney Aschenwald said.

This year’s impending architectural study will be a chance to examine alternate solutions. Once the study is complete, the county would also be eligible to apply for larger sources of funding — namely a $450,000 public facilities grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, Aschenwald said. The budget for revamping the Bigfork Community Center could be further augmented by selling the existing property — a Realtor last recommended a listing price of $286,000 in 2017 — and potentially coupling those funds with money generated from a previous sale of another county-owned building. The public facilities grant, if awarded, plus the proceeds from the two buildings, could put the project budget in the mid-$900,000s, Aschenwald said.

Aschenwald has done some digging into possibilities for the new center and told commissioners there are limited locations available in Bigfork — whether they were looking at existing buildings to remodel or vacant land to build on. Commissioner Randy Brodehl suggested they consider land the county already owns, specifically Lake Hills Park — a wide green expanse in a residential area, accessible via Lake Hills Drive off Montana 35.

“If you did something over there, you’d have plenty of room for this and still have park space,” Aschenwald said.

Current uses of the park include a green space for nearby residents and a sledding area during the winter months.

But before the county figures out exact dollars and cents and nails down a plan, Lisa Sheppard, director of Flathead County Agency on Aging, stressed the importance of factoring in community feedback.

“I feel like we need to know more about what they want,” Sheppard said. “The building itself can be a catalyst for bringing in that community involvement. And if the community says, ‘No, we don’t have any interest in that,’ then it’s a different conversation.”

Sheppard noted the center may be best-served by investing in a new home. She cited the recent, and wildly successful, transformation of the Kalispell Senior Center that tripled its membership after moving from a hard to access and uninviting location on Second Avenue West to the county’s South Campus Building at 40 11th Ave. W. two years ago.

Sheppard went on to explain a new facility could help fight long-held stereotypes that senior centers are just places for older people to do “boring” things.

“If you have a rundown building for example, it reinforces that stereotype,” she explained. “… It creates a lot of stigma and keeps people from coming to participate.”

A new facility could be a game-changer in Bigfork and may help inspire more folks of all ages to take part in the center’s activities. The Bigfork Community Center currently has 25 members, but Sheppard said approximately 40% of its local population is age 60 or older.

“If we hadn’t had that experience at the Kalispell Senior Center so recently, I think I’d be a lot more hesitant to claim the power of a new building,” she said. “But having seen the absolutely extraordinary transformation that they have gone through, it makes me feel more confident in saying that doing something … will not only benefit the older adults in the community but the community as a whole."

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.