A new senior center for Laramie County is on the Nov. 2 sixth-penny sales tax ballot after nearly a decade of program directors advocating for it.
The project is featured on Proposition 9 and would give the Cheyenne Housing Authority and Laramie County Senior Services more than $10.1 million to build a new facility.
County Commissioner Troy Thompson approached the Cheyenne Housing Authority board as the sixth-penny ballot was coming together and asked them to put forward a plan. He said he knew previous directors had been working to find an opportunity to build a new senior center, but had never been able to secure a proposition over the past 10 years.
Thompson said it was time to address the needs of the older generations, which make up 16.5% of Laramie County’s population and continues to grow.
“It’s very exciting for us,” said Senior Services Director Erin LeBlanc. “And we want to be good stewards of the money.”
A property has already been purchased next to the Foxcrest Community Center on Pershing Boulevard, just east of the Maverik fuel station and store. Senior Services uses the community center as a meal distribution location, and the funds would allow them to expand the 3,000-square-foot building to 17,000 square feet.
Although the Foxcrest center is used part-time for senior accessibility in south Cheyenne, it is not the main building used for the program. The current Laramie County Senior Center is hidden away on Thomas Avenue, nestled between the Burke Senior Center building and Cheyenne Civic Center.
LeBlanc said issues for seniors begin before they even walk through the door. There is almost no visibility of the center due to surrounding city growth, and designated parking is not available, which makes it difficult for handicapped community members to access.
The new location would address this easily. It has almost 100 parking spaces dedicated to seniors, a stop along the city bus route, and it is within five miles of 1,000 senior housing units.
Accessibility is not the only issue, though, according to Leblanc.
The current building is also almost 50 years old and can no longer provide sustainable services to community members due to a deteriorating infrastructure, lack of space and a need for up-to-date amenities. Seniors are restrained to a small recreation and living room, a dining area and the bathrooms are being used as storage units.
More than 400 seniors use this facility consistently to take part in activities, classes and social events, and Leblanc said it doesn’t feel comfortable or feasible anymore.
“We just don’t feel like we can grow in our current place that we’re at now,” she said.
The center also provides more than 60,000 meals a year, which is difficult within the current space. LeBlanc said the nutrition program is an important aspect of the center’s services, and having an updated kitchen and dining area would significantly help.
The affordable meals the center serves are sometimes the only home-cooked breakfast or lunch seniors receive a day. William Haley has lived in Cheyenne for 90 years and began using the senior center five years ago for that reason.
“It’s so wonderful to come here and have a cooked, wonderful meal,” he said.
Like many seniors who have begun to feel the impacts of their age, he said he no longer has the energy and ability to cook in his own kitchen at home. Haley comes to the cafeteria every day for lunch and joins other community members in similar situations.
Besides providing dependable meals, LeBlanc said the center also provides social opportunities and a sense of camaraderie that is necessary for seniors’ success.
One senior at the center has been using the facilities for two decades because he sees it as his community. James Evans is 92 years old and has been coming to the facility for 20 years to attend balance classes, go to events and eat lunch with his friends.
LeBlanc said when you look at older celebrities, such as Betty White, living very active lives, it’s because they have a purpose. She wants the seniors in Cheyenne to live just as long and feel supported in some form of purpose.
She said support was an especially prevalent topic during the pandemic. The center made calls to all 400 active participants and checked in on them at least three times during the year, because it might be the only time someone talked with them on the phone.
“What about our parents who have lost their spouse, or have lost some dear friends as they age?” she said. “It’s not just activities, it’s the socialization part of it.”
She said she hopes that residents can understand how valuable the center is and the opportunities that will be provided to serve the community with a new facility. She wants to provide for seniors to an even higher degree.
The passing of Proposition 9 would also be significant for her because she said predecessors before her have worked so hard to get to this point. She has only been the leader of the program for a year and a half, and is trying to finish what previous directors started.
She said she sees the changes that need to be made and has faith the community will, too.
“I will, hopefully, carry it to the end of the race,” she said.