Naples Senior Center purchases land, moves forward with new building in North Naples
It started off with a phone call — and a simple question.
Or, at least it seemed like a simple question.
In 2012, a colleague in Boston dialed Jaclynn Faffer and asked for help finding a senior center for her mother, who was in her 90s and relocating to Naples to live closer to her son.
After a search, Faffer said she found out such a center didn't exist, leaving her stunned.
With a little research done by Florida Gulf Coast University, she discovered loneliness and isolation among seniors were real issues in Naples and surrounding communities.
That put the fire under her feet to start the Naples Senior Center — with the help of the Naples Jewish community — and her board at Jewish Family & Community Services of Southwest Florida, the nonprofit Faffer moved here to head up in 2010.
Faffer, who has a doctoral degree in social welfare, has been working in the field of human services for more than 25 years
Under her direction the senior center opened its doors in January 2014 — with 80 members. Now, it has more than 1,400.
With that kind of exponential growth, Faffer said it became critical to find a larger home for the non-secular senior activity and support center she steers with a passion.
That need led to the decision to build a new — and much larger — center at a different site.
A few weeks ago, the senior center closed on its purchase of 13.7 acres along Autumn Oaks Lane, one block south of Immokalee Road, where it will put its new permanent, state-of-the-art building. The property — consisting of four lots — cost $2.75 million.
Now the center's home, located on Castello Drive, spans 12,000 square feet. The new one would be more than twice the size, stretching 30,000 square feet.
Operating as its own nonprofit, the Naples Senior Center provides comprehensive programs and social services for seniors (defined as anyone 60 and over), regardless of their religious backgrounds, views or beliefs.
The center was bursting at the seams before the pandemic hit.
While COVID-19 has forced the center to temporarily close for safety reasons, it continues to reach its members through many virtual and remote programs, from tai chi to food delivery.
Members pay an annual fee of $25.
"No one is ever turned way, if they need or want a service," Faffer said.
The move felt right
Finding and choosing a new site for the center was anything but easy.
However, when Faffer drove past the for sale-by-owner sign on the chosen property, she said it just felt right because of its central location.
The project has been designed and redesigned to try to minimize its impact on the neighborhood. Changes include increased setbacks and enhanced landscaping, but strong opposition persists.
Other promises made to the neighbors and the county include steering traffic away from Oakes Boulevard and preserving five acres of the property as open space that will make it more visually appealing.
"The beauty of this particular site is that it gives us a lot of outdoor space for a garden club, a farm to table club, and it also gives us room for exercise," Faffer said.
The new center's hours of operation would be limited. Activities would begin at 10 a.m. and end at around 3 p.m. on weekdays to avoid worsening rush hour traffic, with no weekend or night programs planned.
"The goal is to serve as many people as need our services," Faffer said, but not at the expense of the surrounding neighborhood.
"I don't really know what the world will look like after COVID is under control," she said, "but my guess is people will be looking for more opportunities to be with other people and we'll be in a position to provide that opportunity."
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While members are excited about the move, some of the center's future neighbors aren't.
Opponents turned out in force at a public hearing on the project in December, raising concerns about its impacts on the usually peaceful Oakes Estates neighborhood.
Nearly 300 residents, who are members of the Oakes Estates Neighborhood Association, opposed the location for traffic and safety reasons. They argued the rezoning and growth plan amendment required for the two-story building would set a bad precedent if given the go-ahead.
Representatives for the association couldn't immediately be reached for comment about the project moving ahead.
Ultimately, county commissioners voted 4-1 on each of the necessary changes for the advancement of the project. The change to the county's comprehensive plan — or blueprint for growth — required a supermajority vote of four out of five commissioners.
Some opponents questioned the timing of the vote, as it came after a new commissioner, Rick LoCastro, joined the board, replacing Donna Fiala, who decided to retire after holding the District 1 seat for 20 years.
"I think this is a great location, and I think in time, in short order, this neighborhood, much like the citizens who were for it, will really appreciate having the center in the north corner of their neighborhood. It's not smack dab in the middle," LoCastro said during the public hearing.
Commissioner Bill McDaniel ended up as the lone dissenter.
"Love the mission, don't care for the location," he said before casting his no vote after an hours-long hearing.
Explaining his vote further, McDaniel said: "I don't believe the facility and its size are compatible for a transitional commercial use."
For some commissioners, the affirmative votes on the project came easy, but for others it came with angst. Burt Saunders described his favorable decision as one of the most difficult ones he's ever had to make in his four-plus years as a county commissioner.
"It's my district, but I just don't see any good to say no to this, because I think it's going to be a tremendous asset, and I think it's going to be — quite frankly — an asset in the community," he said.
Faffer — and the center's members, employees and volunteers — couldn't agree more.
North Naples resident Bob Mercaldo said he's thrilled about having a larger center that can support more programs and more people, without bumping into each other all the time.
"It's going to be a beautiful, beautiful building," he said. "They are making the whole place look like a park."
The 77-year-old said he first discovered the senior center when a neighbor, who was a member, "brought him down there" to give it a try in 2015.
"Actually, it was love at first sight. Because of all the activities," Mercaldo said.
One of his favorite programs is Guy Time. While the center is physically closed, the weekly program lives on through Zoom, giving a group of men the opportunity to talk about "guy stuff" for two hours weekly, Mercaldo said.
Over the years, he's been involved in many other activities and programs at the center, from a book club to a brain fitness group. He used to go to the center regularly for a hot lunch, offered on Wednesdays, which he misses.
"This place has just been wonderful," Mercaldo said. "They have done so many things for so many people."
He treasures the many friends he's made through the center, including two World War II veterans, who both recently died, but live on in spirit in his heart.
"You are not going to walk down the street and meet people like this and get a chance to thank them for what they've done to keep this country in one piece," Mercaldo said.
Bigger and better
Naples resident CeCe Zenti, 76, a member of the senior center for about four years, said she too is looking forward to the new address.
"It's going to be larger," she said. "There will be more parking. There is going to be a lot of green space, which will be nice."
If seniors can't find something to participate in that's offered by the center "you're in big trouble," Zenti said, because there are so many fun and interesting activities and programs, even now when they're only offered virtually.
In the past, she said, the center has even had "zip code" meetings to help seniors who live in the same area get to know one another.
Zenti is still enjoying the center's exercise classes, such as yoga and tai chi, which are offered regularly online.
"We have experts that are trained to exercise us, and they exercise every part of your body," she said.
She's made new and interesting friends through the center who she socializes with outside of it.
"A lot of them have traveled to some really fantastic places and it's fun hearing about them," Zenti said.
While she understands the neighborhood's concerns about the new location, she thinks they'll dissipate once the center is up and running.
"I think once it's there they are going to find it will be an addition to their community," she said. "It will not be a detriment, not at all. It's quite a fantastic place."
Liz Jaffe agrees. She's volunteered at the center since she arrived in the Naples area eight years ago.
As the center has expanded, she's expanded her involvement. Her volunteerism has included everything from teaching seniors how to use smart phones, laptops and tablets to caring for seniors with dementia, so their caretakers can get a break.
She's looking forward to the larger building because it will give the dementia respite care program its own space, which will not only be more convenient, but less noisy.
With the center is closed, Jaffe, a senior herself, said she's still found ways to help others. That includes making weekly phone calls just to check in and delivering food to doorsteps.
"It has been fun," she said of her involvement. "I feel as though I have new friends."
Her new friends include other volunteers.
"Some of my closest friends are the women I met through the senior center," Jaffe said. "And that is very enriching at my age, to start having new friends like that."
She's eager to see her friends again inside the four walls of the center, but understands the need to keep it closed for now.
As for the spiffier location, it's not expected to open until 2022.
The multimillion-project is still in the permitting stage, but construction is anticipated to begin this summer. It's expected to take 10 months to a year to build.
The exact cost of the new center hasn't been firmed up.
However, a $15 million capital campaign, dubbed "A New Era for Seniors," launched in January 2019 to support the project.
The campaign kicked off with a $5 million lead donation by well-known Naples philanthropists Patty and Jay Baker.
“The Naples Senior Center serves a critical need for older adults in our community,” said Jay Baker in making the gift. “We are proud to support their mission of empowering seniors by giving them the tools to address life’s challenges. It is our hope that our contribution will encourage other community-minded individuals to step up in support of the organization.”
So far, the campaign has raised $12.5 million for the new building.