When the new Charles & Lynn Zhang Portage Community Senior Center, at 203 W. Centre Ave., opens its doors May 20, its director, Kim Phillips, will have just turned old enough to use the facility.
But Phillips, who turned 50 last July, says that the new facility won’t be your grandmother’s senior center. “Today’s seniors are really an active, vibrant population and want to do fun things, and our new center reflects that,” she says.
With 36,000 square feet, the $12 million, three-level building houses new fitness facilities, two large community rooms, a commercial kitchen, a coffee cafe, classrooms and pickleball courts. It’s quite a step up from the 7,000-square-foot facility on Library Lane that housed the Portage Senior Center since 1982. And that is by design, says Phillips, who has managed the previous building since 2014 and has been overseeing the construction and development of the new center for the past two years.
“We really want to establish ourselves as the gold standard for serving older adults in western Michigan. The boomers coming up are looking for a whole different menu of options. And when it comes to what we can offer them, the sky is the limit really.”
How did you get where you are today?
I had worked for another agency in the county that worked with older adults, and when that ended, I was looking for employment and saw this position posted. I had experience working with older adults, but one of the requirements for this job was a gerontology degree, which I don’t have. My degree is in communications, and I have a sales background, but during the interview I told them, “You don’t want a gerontologist for this. This is a center for active, independently functioning older adults. This is not a nursing home. It’s not a skilled-care facility.” However I made the case, it must have worked, because they ended up hiring me. I just celebrated my eight-year anniversary with the City of Portage on April 1.
Did you know you’d be building a new center when you were hired?
No, that (conceptual process) started about a year and a half after I came aboard. There had been past attempts to either expand the current facility or build a new one; there was even a millage on the ballot years ago that didn’t pass. There’s always been talk of someday, maybe. I finally asked the administration if it’s going to happen, what’s the first thing that needs to be done? We can talk about “someday” and “maybe” all day long. What’s the first step? I was told it would be a feasibility study, so we contracted with Byce & Associates, who met with members representing different factions of the center, asking them what they liked and what they would change. That process morphed into a proposal for a new free-standing facility because our current facility was landlocked and an expansion would still have been very limiting.
The city administration and the mayor (Patricia Randall) really latched onto this as an opportunity to serve older adults in the community. It couldn’t be fully city-funded, though, and so we approached it as the first public-private partnership that the city had attempted, where we did a capital campaign to finance part of it. Charles and Lynn Zhang (owners of Zhang Financial investment services company) came forward with a $2 million lead gift, and it moved on from there. We ended up raising $5.5 million.
Building during the pandemic must have been … interesting.
Oh, I’ve learned everything about construction that I never wanted to know (she laughs). When we were shutting down because of the pandemic was the time we were really starting to wade knee-deep into the final design of the facility. We had to look at and approve everything virtually — we were picking out countertops and paint colors virtually, which isn’t easy. It really had to be a team effort, you know, because nobody could do this operating in a silo. The support of Portage’s city administration, the city manager, the director of parks and recreation, along with representatives from the architect firm Byce & Associates and the construction firm AVB, has been a great collaboration.
In a way, though, the pandemic was almost a gift for me. While the Senior Center was still operating and providing programs virtually and the staff was still here, not having that day-to-day work of people in and out of the building let me focus on getting deep into the development and making those decisions.
We hoped to open in late 2021, but with supply-chain issues and Covid-related delays, it really got pushed back. Then we thought it would be February but had a reality check and realized we had to push it forward to May.
What keeps you up at night?
I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning thinking about packing boxes and how the transition’s going to be, and that’s not just physically moving but transitioning our ongoing programs too. We don’t want to stop services, so we’ve beefed up our virtual offerings for the month of May so that while we are closed for face-to-face programming, people can still have the opportunity to connect if they want it.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity