Spreckels Center


1/15/16 - City Breaks Ground for the John D. Spreckels Center (New Senior Center)
The sun shone brightly as music by singers from a bygone era – Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley – wafted across a grove of ancient, historic trees. A few feet from the shack that had housed the Senior Center for decades, a crowd of more than 100 gathered to watch city officials break ground for the John D. Spreckels Center and Bowling Green.

It was a very big deal. There was a color guard from Coronado High’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (NJROTC). Anna Bell Walker, from the Coronado School of the Arts (CoSA), sang the National Anthem a cappella.

City council members Carrie Downey, Mike Woiwode and Richard Bailey, joined Mayor Casey Tanaka and City Manager Blair King in donning hardhats to “make dirt fly,” as Tanaka put it. Councilman Bill Sandke was out of town.

The event also drew a large contingent of dignitaries or their representatives from across the county. Rear Adm. Lou Smith represented the Coronado Unified School District. Capt. Steve Burnett, Commander of Naval Base Coronado, and County Supervisor Greg Cox were there. Congressman Scott Peters, State Senator Marty Block and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins sent representatives with proclamations they had proffered to mark the day. Police Chief Jon Froomin, Fire Chief Mike Blood and a host of senior city staff were there as well.

More importantly there were 100 senior citizens in attendance; many of whom had worked for, and waited for, this event for a very long time.

The idea to replace the old, dilapidated building goes back decades; but five years ago, thanks to the energy of Francette Roeder and Berie Grobe, the talk became a reality.

For many, Roeder was the face of the project, appearing at, and rallying other seniors to speak at, commission and city council meetings to champion the need for a new building. Meetings she and her posse did attend: the project had to pass muster with the historic resources commission, the design and review commission, the planning commission, the library board, the street tree committee, and the city council. All told, it took nearly two years and an environmental review before the old building could be shuttered.

“Patience is not my virtue, but persistence is,” Roeder said of her efforts to prod the project forward just before the ceremonies got underway.

The future 9,000 square foot building is everything Roeder and other seniors had hoped for.

“They wanted a place to call their own. They wanted their own spot, a place where they could socialize; engage in fun and educational activities,” said Tanaka. “They wanted a low profile building with open an open-air concept, one with lots of light. They wanted a large multipurpose room. One that could use outdoor space, but also bring the space in doors.”

The commitment and passion of Roeder would have been for naught if it hadn’t been for the generosity of another remarkable woman – Frances Harpst, whose $5 million of unrestricted money she bequeathed to the city in 2010 is paying for much of the construction.

The real push for the center came just as the State of California was liquidating redevelopment agencies, the source for major capital improvement projects. Redevelopment was how the city financed the Village Theatre and the Community Center for example.

The city was not the only beneficiary of Harpst’s largess. She also bequeathed millions to the Coronado Schools Foundation, PAWS and the University of San Diego, among others. Throughout her life she was an anonymous donor for many organizations and causes. Once when the Coronado Historical Association found itself $100 thousand short of its annual funding raising goal, Harpst wrote a check to meet it, Tanaka recalled.

“The hallmark of Harpst’s generosity is that she did not want her names on these things,” he said.

Her spirit of generosity guided the city’s decision to name the building after John D. Spreckels, whose largess to the region matched, if not exceeded Harpst’s. He built the city’s first library and gave it an entire block, a theatre downtown and the organ pavilion in Balboa Park.

Naming the building for Spreckels not only echoed the generosity of money, time and passion that fueled the drive for the new building, it also makes the center more inclusive, and hopefully it will attract Baby boomers and Gen Xers who are eligible to join but don’t (many believe because they don’t consider themselves old).

“I hate the fact that I walk in at the age of 68 and I bring down the average age,” said Woiwode. “I want my peers and others who are at the point in life where they can really use a facility like this to do so.”

Not that the Center lacks support. “There were over 100 people at the Senior Center Christmas party last month and that didn’t include the 70 plus lawn bowlers,” Downey pointed out. “I am quite confident that it will be used,” not only by seniors but by other service organizations, such as the Lion’s Club or Soroptimists, who can rent out space to hold events there.

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