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Center has its sights on bigger building

The Lecanto center is a popular place. It logged 18,000 visits last year. But after 15 years, it isn't big enough anymore.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


LECANTO -- Many senior citizens head up the hill at lunchtime each weekday. Some drive. Others get a ride. They enter the Lecanto Multi-Purpose Senior Center and enjoy a free hot meal.

But the diners don't dawdle over coffee. They can't. Volunteers take away the lunch tables to make room for dance class, or arts and crafts, or some other activity.

The senior center is a popular place. It logged 18,000 visits last year. It enjoys a tree-lined, hillside perch above County Road 491 just south of State Road 44.

But after 15 years in business, the cozy building has become a victim of its own success. It simply isn't big enough anymore. The offices are cramped. The pool room offers only short cues, since the space is too cramped to accommodate standard sticks.

"We've adapted. We've had to adapt," said Rosemarie Cotton-Cutchins, project coordinator at the senior center.

The crunch has inspired the center's leaders and volunteers to embark on an unusual, and unusually ambitious, fundraising campaign. They want to collect $200,000 to $250,000 to finance some new construction and some renovations.

The kickoff comes next month. The center is a county building, and the county certainly pays for its maintenance. It also will kick in for the expansion plans.

But the leaders and volunteers think they can accomplish the job more quickly by reaching out to the community. And besides, in a county where more than a third of the residents are age 65 and older, helping the senior center should be viewed as a worthwhile task.

"This is something that involves everybody in the county," Cotton-Cutchins said.

"It is a community center. My feeling is if the community wants to reap the benefits, maybe it needs to help and become part of it and show support of it in that way," added Anne Westbrook, another county official.

Westbrook said the center has collected some private donations that will be used to fund design work. She plans to seek $103,000 in the county's 2002-03 budget. Grant funding also is available.

Financial support from the community should help inspire grant agencies, and perhaps even the County Commission, to join in.

Lecanto is the county's only senior center. The East Citrus center, on State Road 44 next to the Gospel Island fire station, receives many elderly guests but is open to people of all ages. The county still is trying to establish a west Citrus center.

Lecanto is one of six places where the county offers congregate dining for seniors. Anyone age 60 or older is welcome. There are no income guidelines and the meal is free, although donations help make the federal money that fuels the program go further.

About 50 seniors call the Lecanto center their lunchroom on any given day. Elsewhere on the grounds, people huddle to play cards, shoot pool and create crafts. The lunch tables must yield to dancers and bingo players in the early afternoon, and then volunteers must set the tables up again in anticipation of the next day's lunch crowd.

"I don't know how many times they come up and say thank God we have this place," county official Pat Coles said.

But Coles knows it can be better. Hence the program, which is called Invest in Our Seniors' Future.

Steering the effort will be Friends of the Senior Center, whose members are volunteers, and other volunteers recruited for a special ad hoc committee that will be established specifically for raising funds.

The goal is to build 686 square feet of new space that will provide enough room for a permanent lunch area and a large area for dancing and other activities. The plans also call for modernizing doorways and restrooms to make them accessible for handicapped guests.

Center officials recognize the project will take years to complete. But the center celebrates its 15th anniversary next month. A party is scheduled for March 16. What better time to start?

Besides, the payoff is worth the work.

"If we had more room," Coles said, "we'd have more people."

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