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Story Last modified at 8:41 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chugiak senior center revamps assisted-living quarters
Center comes in under budget on grant for apartment improvements

Alaska Star

The Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center is starting a major renovation project in the center's 21 assisted-living apartments with help from a $600,000 grant.

The center's assisted-living area was built more than 18 year ago, in 1993, before current Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. The apartments offer independent living for seniors who need around-the-clock access to nursing care and support services, such as those with physical disabilities or dementia.

A recent tour revealed spacious, 700-square-foot rooms with full kitchen and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms but with standard-size refrigerators and cabinets that make it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to reach the top shelves. Sinks and stoves aren't wheelchair-accessible.

And then there's the hallway carpet, decorated with a busy pattern that's "not conducive to residents with cognitive issues," as the center's grant application puts it.

"If you watch the carpet when you walk, you start to get dizzy," said Gail Burger, the center's development director.

The grant, which is being finalized now, will pay for renovations that make the rooms more wheelchair-friendly. Each room will cost roughly $25,000, based on contractor bids. The carpet replacement will cost about $100,000.

The center hopes to finish the project by this fall.

The money for the improvements comes through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation's Greater Opportunities for Affordable Living program.

The grant is unusual because it's the largest the center has received from AHFC, a self-supporting statewide public corporation that provides money for various forms of housing.

Compared to other grants from the GOAL program, however, the senior center award is among the smallest, according to AHFC officials. GOAL money is awarded through an annual grant competition to pay for rental development and rehabilitation, and grants normally number in the millions.

GOAL this year awarded $3.3 million toward a $6.5 million Fairbanks retirement community construction project, for example. GOAL funded three of six projects – including the senior center - that applied for the funding this year. The senior center project was appealing in part because of the small amount of money requested, which was about all the funding left over in GOAL this year after two bigger projects got money.

Most of all, the senior center grant is notable because, at least for now, officials at the center don't think they'll need all the money. The bid on the work came in at roughly half the grant funding, or about $300,000, center officials say.

Burger said a few weeks ago that she had originally hoped to use any additional funds from the grant for other work needed at the facility, including an upgrade to the kitchen that serves assisted-living residents. But she wasn't sure that would be allowed under the program's rules

That's not how the grant program works, agreed Daniel Delfino, an AHFC planner serving as project manager on the senior center grant.

"That's a popular wiggle maneuver a lot of people try," Delfino said. "Unless it's specifically stated in the grant, the answer is 'no.'"

The desire to use grant funding for other needs "wouldn't be unique to the senior center, so I don't want you to get the impression I'm beating up on them," he added.

Delfino also cautioned that change orders could bring the ultimate cost of the assisted-living project closer to the grant amount than expected. AHFC will monitor spending as the grant proceeds and will take back any unspent money at the end of the project.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.