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Winter sunlight streams through the windows as 200-plus senior Chula Vistans swing their arms, step side to side, bend their knees and hold their hands up to the ceiling. White sneakers squeak on the wooden floor, forming a cacophonous background to the clipped announcements from instructor Kay Bodge:
“One, two, one, two, one, two.”
It’s the morning physical fitness session at the Norman Park Senior Center, Chula Vista’s one and only senior center and, as usual, dozens of people have shown up to get their regular dose of cardiovascular activity.
As the class winds down, residents spread out around the complex. One group plays bridge at a corner table. Several white-haired men head next door to the billiards room to chalk cues and continue long rivalries. Still more seniors line up to meet with a tax advisor. An elderly gentleman pushing a walker makes his way laboriously to the fitness center next door. I spot him later, pumping away weakly on a stationary bike and he grins and waves. He made it.
In its heyday, the Norman Center served more than 2,500 people a week and was open seven days a week from morning until night. Once, more than 150 groups met here regularly: Line dancers, knitting classes, Spanish classes, karate, tae kwon do, stamp collectors. Now, the center’s open four hours a day, from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. Sixty groups still call the center home, but others have had to move elsewhere, to churches and libraries, or have simply folded.
In November, the city threatened to close the Norman Center completely.
That’s when the seniors revolted.
Led by activists like Bodge, an army of geriatrics marched on City Hall, demanding that the city’s leaders take them seriously. Thousands of people signed a petition to keep the senior center open. The center’s advocates organized a human chain around the building, seniors holding hands around the 1970s-era structure in a wall of defiance and kinship.
The center was spared. At least that’s what Frank Carson, the Norman Center’s supervisor and one of the last parks and recreation employees left at the city of Chula Vista, believes. Nobody’s told Carson the center’s being shut down. Not yet.
Carson came to Chula Vista in 2003. He was part of the first horde of public sector workers attracted to the pretty city by the bay.
“I was part of the boom, now I’m part of the bust,” Carson tells me. “I went from the fastest growing city to the fastest foreclosing city.”
Carson got a layoff notice in November. It was recently rescinded, but he’s decided to plan his professional future in three-month increments from now on; quarter-year plans that, if scuppered, cause less disappointment.
Whether further cuts will come to the Norman Center depend on two things: The efficacy of huge service cutbacks and layoffs recently implemented by the city manager and the state of the economy.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the South Bay city looking at the city’s startling fall from financial grace, talking with city leaders and everyday residents.
For now, as I outlined in a previous post, Chula Vista’s accountants think the city can weather the storm. By making more than $20 million in savings — primarily from a drawdown in once-lavish employee pensions and mass layoffs — the city should be able to keep the thousands of seniors who rely on the Norman Center happy.
Well, reasonably happy. There’s already a lot of resentment out there.
“I just feel real angry,” 74-year-old Gustavo Garcia told me. Garcia is former president of Club Amistad, a group of more than 50 seniors that meets twice-weekly at the Norman Center. Club Amistad used to hold evening dances. Now its members squeeze into one of the partitions of the Norman Center’s main hall.
“There’s not really enough room for all of us. We’re all crammed together. This place has been open for more than 50 years. This is our tax money. We don’t know what the city has done with all that money,” Garcia said, his lean face tight with anger.
During my reporting, I discovered one thing the city did with some of Garcia’s tax money: It spent $100,000 on artwork to decorate its fancy new City Hall, which was erected in 2002, right in the middle of Chula Vista’s heyday.
That didn’t seem like much to me when city accountants first gave me the figure. After all, it paid for more than 70 pieces of art, and there’s some lovely art on the walls of the civic center.
But I got some context for that figure this week when Frank Carson told me how much it costs the Recreation Department to keep the Norman Center open four hours a day, five days a week: $62,000.
“That’s what? Each month? Each week?” I asked him.
“No, no. That’s the annual cost,” he said.
Correction: This story originally stated that the Norman Park Senior Center once served more than 2,500 people a day. The story should have said that the center served 2,500 people a week.
Also, Frank Carson told me that the annual cost to the city to keep the center open was $62,000 annually. However, Carson’s number reflects only the cost to the city’s Recreation Department, and does not include other costs associated with keeping the center open. A city finance analyst estimated the total net cost to the city as $211,000 annually, down from $475,000 annually when the center was open 40 hours a week. This includes additional costs such as maintenance, custodial costs, etc. I regret the errors.