Long-awaited senior center opens in Laurel

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.

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."

The center was designed without stairs, to make it easily accessible for seniors with limited mobility.

In the entrance, is a snack bar with pre-packaged food and drinks, with tables and chairs nearby in a glass atrium.

Around the corner from the cafe, there's a conference room, decorated in earth tones, with audio and visual capabilities for PowerPoint presentations. Across the hall, are the center's administrative offices and separate offices for three seniors groups: ATLAS, National Active and Retired Federal Employees and the Laurel Friendship Club.

Dernoga said providing the space "didn't come easy" but was something they felt was needed.

In the 13-station computer room, computers can be lowered into their individual desk tops if the instructor wants to push them together to make a conference table.

"We have this large screen up front so the class instructions can be seen easily by seniors," said computer instructor Charlene Major, who will teach all levels of computer courses. Classes are free this week but will cost residents $10 to $20 in the future.

Just down the hall is an exercise room designed for floor exercises, aerobics,yoga, line-dancing classes and other activities. The room has access to the outdoor patio, which has an array of tables with umbrella coverings in an intimate, wooded setting.

"I had lunch on the patio and loved it," Jo Long, of Laurel, said during the grand opening reception. "I play bingo every week, and I plan to join the exercise classes. I'll be here all the time."

The center has a separate fitness room with treadmills, exercise bikes, leg presses and other equipment chosen with seniors in mind. There's also a billiards room, a woodcraft room, an arts and crafts room, and a ceramics and pottery room that is equipped with a kiln room and pottery wheels.

"This place is fabulous and was so well thought out," said ceramics and pottery instructor Dick Anderson.

Elder wisdom

Members of area senior clubs were heavily involved in the design of the project from day one and made sure their needs were addressed. For example, the bathrooms have railings along the walls that lead into them and spacious companion bathrooms are included in the building.

"I like that the bathrooms don't have doorknobs to turn that some seniors have problems with, and I find the artwork appealing," Bertha Arnistead said. "The toilets are also different heights, which some seniors need."

"Park and planning officials weren't envisioning a center like this, but the seniors were so instrumental in getting this because they sat down with the designers, went over all of the plans and knew what they wanted," Dernoga said. "This was a very collaborative effort, and not a situation where the government threw up a building and asked people what they thought. They had input first, which is why everyone is happy with the center."

Mayor Craig Moe, who spoke at the dedication, described the center as beautiful and well laid out.

"I like the openness and the many areas where seniors can meet and socialize," Moe said. "I was impressed."

City Council member Jan Robison, who served on a task force for the center, was also impressed.

"It's breathtaking," she said. "Having seen the plans and now the end product that will get the seniors out of Phelps and into a beautiful facility is wonderful."

The only damper on the day was that there were some who worked tirelessly on the project but died before the center's plans came to fruition. Frush requested a moment of silence in their honor.

They included a former Dernoga aide, Andy Eppelman, of South Laurel, who worked on the project and whose name is on a plaque on a bench in front of the center. Five ATLAS members who worked on the project also have their names engraved on a rock in a rain garden in front of the center.

"It is a great day in Laurel with the only downside being the people who are no longer here," Curtis said. "But, they'll always be remembered."

The Laurel-Beltsville Senior Activity Center will be open Monday through Saturday. Residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties who are 60 and older won't be charged for photo entrance identification cards. Residents who are 50 to 59 will be charged $40, and nonresidents will pay $105. Call the center at 301-206-3350.

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