After more than 15 years of planning and being stalled with funding uncertainty and political obstacles, the grand opening of the new Laurel-Beltsville Senior Activity Center was celebrated in a big way Aug. 26.

The center is managed locally with input from senior organizations, but it is owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the agency that acquires, develops and maintains parks in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Local, county and state officials joined members of area senior groups for the ribbon cutting to officially open the center, then enjoyed tours of the 23,000-square-foot facility and a reception.

"This has been so long in coming that there were times when we didn't think it would happen, but we're here at last," said District 21 Del. Barbara Frush, who represents Laurel and was credited with getting needed state funds for the project. Frush said she was given the nickname of "stalker" last year because of her dogged, and ultimately successful, efforts in getting former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson to sign off on documents needed for the project to move forward.

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Former County Council Chairman Thomas Dernoga, of Laurel, also secured county funding for the center and worked for many years to make the project a reality.

"I started working on this in the fall of 2001, but many others were working on it 10 years before that," Dernoga said. "The seniors were the real partners who made this happen. It's an unbelievable pleasure to see this day come."

Located on Contee Road, next door to Laurel Regional Hospital, the state-of-the-art Laurel-Beltsville Senior Activity Center is a dream come true for many seniors, who spent countless hours in planning meetings with designers, elected officials and others involved in the project on the long road to the center's completion.

"There were razor-edge times, but we're just thankful we had a great team that made this happen," said Curt Curtis, president of ATLAS, All Together for Laurel Area Seniors, which gave more than $300,000 to center officials to furnish the facility. "I worked 11 and a half years on this, which is a long time to work on anything, but I'm looking at something that was worth it. I knew the center would be spectacular, but that's an understatement after seeing it completed."

Mary Hulberg was also impressed with how the long-awaited senior center turned out. She and her late husband, Charles Hulberg, who died four years ago, are credited with coming up with the idea in 1995 for a new senior center to replace the antiquated Phelps Senior Center, on Montgomery Street. Hulberg now lives in Austin, Texas, and came to the grand opening with her two stepdaughters.

"I wish he (Charles) were here because the center includes everything he planned and wanted for seniors," Hulberg said with tears in her eyes. "The center gives seniors a great place to get together outside their homes. I was relieved that the outside patio is large, and was impressed and very pleased that the activity and ceramics rooms were like he wanted."

'Sense of peace and exhilaration'

Other seniors at the grand opening were also impressed with the center as they toured the various sections of the one-level building that has a high, warehouse-style ceiling and earthy colors in the decor throughout the facility, giving the center a cozy feeling.

"It's really fantastic; well designed; and I love the way the colors blend in and are not overstated but gives a sense of peace and exhilaration," Bertha Anistead, of Fort Washington, said at the grand opening.

Center officials said they want the center to be a place for seniors to relax with friends or enjoy concerts, dances or other events in the 250-seat auditorium.

Called the Great Room, the auditorium has a warming kitchen, audio-visual room, sound and lighting equipment, four classrooms, and a large platform stage with two wide projection screens on each side.

"I worked on this project for six years, as an aide to Tom (Dernoga); and I fought hard for this (Great) room," said former Laurel City Council member Faith Calhoun. "The planners wanted it smaller, and I wanted a room that could be available to the seniors and rented out for events like nowhere else in the county, and it can.

Calhoun traveled to Laurel from her current home in New York for Friday's dedication. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything. All I fought for is here, and the center is everything I envisioned," she said.

Offices for senior groups

A fireplace lounge is to the right of the reception area at the building's entrance. The lounge's centerpiece is a fireplace at the far end of the room, which has bookshelves on each side and a large flat-screen TV above it. The room has lots of cushy chairs, artwork on the walls and round wooden tables that flip open to reveal various games.

"It's like coming home to a welcoming, modern lodge, which is what we wanted," said Marybeth Dugan, the center's facility manager. "We want seniors to know that there are lots of fun things for them to do here. It's like a family event."