Some 50 celebrants, many dressed in red and sporting heart-shaped pins, exchanged valentines, danced to golden oldies and savored homemade chocolates yesterday at the newly renovated South Carroll Senior Center.
"It is so much brighter here that it makes me feel 20 years younger," said Tony Matulonis, 66, who claimed to be "a real rock 'n' roller" as he abandoned his cane and stepped into a line dance.
A new coat of soft white paint has brightened the interior of the 60-year-old former school building that has served as a senior center for nearly two decades. New ceiling tiles, window treatments and lighting give the building an airier, more inviting look.
"The building really needed redoing," said Margie Hoffman, 77. "It was so depressing that people would walk in, look around and walk out."
At the suggestion of seniors who participate in the center's daily programs, the parking lot was expanded. The bathrooms were equipped with safety bars. The computer room was updated, and a few more tables were added to the billiard parlor. A welcome sign marks the entrance.
"The changes make the rooms look bigger, and the lighting is great for crafts and art," said Rose Ann Douglass, 63, a quilter and bingo player who often brings flowers to the building on Bartholow Road in Eldersburg.
The county had first planned about $400,000 in renovations - including extensive landscaping, a patio and a gazebo - using a state grant of nearly $200,000 to help pay for the work. But before the project began, county commissioners pared down the renovations and opted to plan for a new and bigger building to replace it.
The board budgeted $3 million for construction of a new center on 10 acres near the intersection of Mineral Hill and Oklahoma roads.
"An excellent spot," said Anna Turk, 85. "It is right near my home. I can walk."
The commissioners returned the $176,376 renovation grant to the state and spent $175,000 in county money to improve the old school building.
"We decided to make the place as pleasant, safe and secure as we could for now, but we desperately need a new building," said Jolene Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services. "It was a gamble to give the state money back because we want to get them a new building and we will need another grant."
Sullivan asked the county commissioners this week if she could expand the future senior center into a community hub, a building that would house a gymnasium and space for seniors, students and community groups.
'A good fit for us'
"We think [this concept] is a good fit for us," Sullivan said. "This is a wonderful intergenerational use of a building. There will be a lot of involvement by every age. Rather than a senior center, we would have a community center used by all ages."
The commissioners asked Sullivan to pursue the concept.
"This is right down the line what I have been talking about for some time," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "It is a really progressive idea, a multi-generational concept."
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said, "We need more recreation facilities in South Carroll, and the seniors could use this, as well. I would like to see us go ahead and see what the costs are."
Sullivan and several county administrators toured the McFaul Activity Center in Bel Air last month and decided that Harford County's 30,000-square- foot building would be an ideal model for the future South Carroll center. Richard Soisson, director of Carroll's Department of Recreation and Parks, said the county has time to plan and expand. Design and architecture work is budgeted for 2006, with construction scheduled to begin the next year.
'We can work this out'
"We can work this out," he said. "We are going to build a senior center in South Carroll, where it is most needed. But we could direct the rec programs there. It could work out for everybody. Most of the building will be used all the time."
The South Carroll seniors seemed receptive.
"I would love to have all the generations together," Turk said. "I hope God lets me live long enough to see this happen."
The center's programs often involve high school students and occasionally pre-schoolers.
"Nobody here will be playing basketball in the gym," said Bud Burkhart, 73. "But we sure could use more space for our activities, a lot more space. And kids are good for us. Any time we have had kids here, we have all gotten along great."
Like most celebrations at the center, the Valentine's Day party drew a big crowd, including three busloads who arrived via Carroll Area Transit Systems.
"A new center will be great, but this one is a lot of fun," said Arthur Brinkworth, 91, who, when he wasn't dancing, sang along with the band. "There is no sense sitting at home in a rocking chair."
Ruth Moreau, 76, has been coming to the South Carroll Center for six years.
"They have done a great job here, but we are all waiting for the new building," she said. "Anything would be better. This building is not pretty, but the people here are all wonderful."