AUBURN — The City Council voted Wednesday to begin rearranging city funding to jump-start an expansion and renovation of the Auburn Senior Community Center.

At a special meeting Wednesday, councilors signed off on a proposal to use previously budgeted Capital Improvement Plan funds toward demolition work at the center on Pettengill Park Road, which would effectively double its size. 

The senior center, next to Hasty Community Center, is housed in a former garage, and the work would tear down a wall between two large bays to make way for a larger renovation. 

The council voted 6-0 in favor, with councilor Bob Hayes absent. 

The vote Wednesday also gave an informal approval to reallocating $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds toward renovating the senior center, after officials learned Auburn could lose the money if not spent by April 30. 

The senior center project is described as “shovel-ready” by city officials, and has received support from councilors and Mayor Jason Levesque, who created the Age-Friendly Community Committee last year with a goal of making Auburn more friendly to the aging population.

There has been increased interest and use of the center, and the seniors and Auburn Recreation officials already have expanded programming in the works. A list of ideas includes fitness and education programs as well as entertainment and community meals. 

Levesque called the vote Wednesday “a bold step forward that illustrates our city’s commitment to providing opportunities to seniors and the entire community, without burdening the local taxpayer.” 

The scope of work to renovate the building will include electrical work, installing fully accessible bathrooms and a new entrance, among other things. Last year, the senior center received a new hood, stove and dishwasher for its kitchen, but they have not been installed. 

Altering the city’s previously approved CDBG budget is not simple, however, and it requires the city to amend its consolidated plan and annual action plan. 

According to Michael Chammings, director of economic and community development, amending the plan requires City Council authorization, an amendment submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a public notice of the change, and an additional public hearing in advance of a City Council vote.

In a memo to the council, Chammings said the CDBG budget was higher than anticipated because budgeted projects did not occur, loan programs were underutilized, and the city saw higher-than-expected program income over the past two years. 

“The program income needs to be spent prior to April 30 to avoid the risk of returning the funds to the federal government,” Chammings said in the memo. “The Senior Center project is a ‘shovel-ready’ project that has been planned for over four years and we wish to spend some of the at-risk funds to complete the senior center project.”

The most underutilized city program is the STAR business loan program, which had $300,000 unspent funds last year, and $125,000 this year. 

The $300,000 toward the expansion will include $200,000 from the city’s building rehabilitation loan program, $50,000 from the Library Street redevelopment project, and $50,000 from the Chestnut Street closure project.

Officials have said the proposed use of the CDBG funds for the senior center would meet HUD requirements.

Zachary Lenhert, community development manager in Auburn, said in the memo that going forward, the department will recommend “loosening eligibility requirements of the STAR Business Loan Program to include the whole city, not just downtown target areas.”

Lenhert said “making the program available to more business is anticipated to increase interest and opportunity.” 

To move forward, the CDBG funds will require approval by the Citizen Advisory Committee, a public hearing at the Feb. 4 council meeting and approval by the council on Feb. 18.

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The Auburn Senior Community Center is in Pettengill Park. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)