OTR Senior Center Could Stay Open Under New Proposal

A potential one-time $50,000 contribution from the city and transfer of ownership to nonprofit CASS, which runs the center, could keep the longtime neighborhood fixture open

click to enlarge OTR Senior Center Director Cheryl Ware and Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
OTR Senior Center Director Cheryl Ware and Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld

The Over-the-Rhine Senior Services Center may get to continue its 30-year tradition of providing hot meals and a sense of community for those in the neighborhood if Cincinnati City Council approves two proposals announced today.

Cincinnati Area Senior Services operates the center at 1720 Race Street. Earlier this month, CASS indicated it would shutter the building because the program it runs at the center providing breakfast, lunch and programing for senior citizens faced a $100,000 budget deficit. Instead, CASS said it would bus seniors who come to the center to Mount Auburn.

CASS CEO Tracey Collins says that the center lost city funding in 2015 and has since suffered cuts to funding it gets via United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which has been experiencing its own fundraising difficulties recently.

But Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld says he will introduce two ordinances that could help the situation. The first would provide $50,000 in one-time city funding to keep the center open as CASS steps up efforts to raise sustaining funding from private donors. The second would direct the city to sell the building where the service center is currently located to CASS for one dollar.

"What a simple but profound gift — to be able to come someplace for a warm meal with people who you know care about you," Sittenfeld said. "That's something we want to make sure we're preserving and supporting and not allowing to go away. This is about a lot more than just one building. This is about people. It's about human beings who deserve our support in their golden years."

Attendees who come for the roughly 70 meals the center provides each day told CityBeat earlier this month that the center was a way to find companionship, safety and comfort.

“It feels safe,” Wendell Russell, who attends the center regularly, said recently. “You know how us seniors are — sometimes we start tripping about safety. And, you know, being up in age like this — seniors move on, they leave this life. Cheryl is willing to sit down and talk about it. And if we don’t show up for a few days, she’ll call. I stay alone and I appreciate her checking up on me when I don’t show up.”

“This is a home away from home," another longtime center visitor named Clifford Beasley said today. "If we had had to give this up, we'd be lost. It means a lot that someone cares about the elderly. I've been coming here it seems like forever."

CASS taking ownership of the building again would provide peace of mind for potential donors, Collins says. It would also allow the nonprofit to lease the upstairs portion of the building for events as a revenue stream.

"One of our challenges is that, for the past two years, we've been operating without a lease," she says. "Getting rid of the unknown will help us move forward with donors."

The nonprofit already covers maintenance and operations costs for the building, which run about $84,000 a year. But with ownership, Collins says she believes CASS can find ways to make the structure more efficient and affordable. Sittenfeld says that there may be other one-time funding possibilities in the city's capital budget for that.

News of the closure angered social service advocates, who mounted a campaign to save the senior center by rallying, starting a petition and lobbying council. The neighborhood is predominantly black with a median household income less than half the overall city's median income and has lost a number of social service providers over the past decade, even as high-dollar developments have ramped up there.

Funding from the city for the center dropped from a high of more than $130,000 in 2007 to zero just eight years later as the city shifted funding priorities toward workforce development, help for people experiencing homelessness and violence prevention.

"Seniors have to be on the agenda for the city of Cincinnati," Collins says. "That's the big win here... this is like their second home."

Collins says CASS will need to raise $50,000-$75,000 each year to keep the center running. But the attention around its potential closure may have spurred more donors — just yesterday, a private family foundation contributed $5,000 toward the center.

"If we could have just a few more donations like that for the specific cause of keeping our doors open here in Over-the-Rhine, that would be fantastic," CASS Board Chair Dan Driehaus said.

Fighting back tears, Senior Center director Cheryl Ware said the center is pivotal for those who go there — and for her.

"We are family here," Ware says. "And that's it. To move us — we were prepared to go as a family, but we are so pleased to stay here in our home."

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