By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A surge in membership and limited space and parking prompted selectmen to restrict the number of nonresidents who can visit the Ingram Senior Center.
The restriction took effect yesterday after selectmen voted unanimously Monday in favor of a recommendation by Senior Services director Patti Drelick to cap the number of out-of-town members at 400.
There are 381 nonresidents from approximately 20 communities who attend the center, Drelick said. That’s 14.8 percent of the center’s 2,569 members.
Three hundred registered last year, and 47 signed up last month alone, she said.
“We try not to turn anyone away,” Drelick said.
She announced the news to approximately 60 seniors having lunch and playing bingo at the center yesterday afternoon. A notice posted near the entrance also informed members of the change.
“I know there have been a lot of rumors around here in regard to nonresidents,” Drelick said. “You can only fit so many people into a building, you can only fit so many people in a parking lot. ... There are probably people out there right now, circling for a parking space.”
Drelick said the cap was necessary because of safety concerns and out of fairness to current members, some of whom must be placed on waiting lists for trips and programs.
“We have to say, ‘We’re sorry, we have to put you on a wait list,’” Drelick told members. “That’s frustrating for us as much as it for you.”
The center averages about 300 visitors a day, and is only allowed to have 325 to 350 at one time, Drelick said. There are four employees, three full-time, one part-time.
Of the 381 nonresidents, 82 are from Methuen and 56 are from Windham, both communities that have their own senior centers, Drelick said. She said Ingram offers many programs that other centers do not, especially wellness and fitness activities.
Salem residents are given first priority because their tax dollars fund the center’s $325,000 annual budget, she said. Although nonresidents must pay a $35 annual fee, they are the first to be put on a waiting list. Salem residents are not charged a membership fee.
Although expansion of the building and 92-space parking lot have been considered, Drelick said, they are not economically feasible. There were only six available parking spaces at noon yesterday.
“It would be difficult to ask the people of Salem to come up with tax dollars to do any one of these,” she said. “You’re looking at a lot of money that I don’t think is available in this fiscal climate right now.”
Many center members said they were surprised to hear Drelick’s announcement.
But given the parking situation and the large number out-of-towners who visit the center, they thought it was a reasonable solution. That included nonresidents, who were relieved they could continue to attend.
“I would be disappointed if I had to leave,” said Claire Duquette, 86, of Hampstead. “They have to set a limit. It’s a problem with the parking.”
Evelyn McPhee, 63, of Raymond said she visits Ingram at least once a week because the center in her town doesn’t offer many programs.
Kathy Radford, 70, of Kingston said many nonresidents are frustrated to be put on waiting lists. She supports the move to cap the numbers.
“I think it’s fair,” she said. “The Salem residents are paying for it.”
Some Salem residents, including Carol Casey, 75, questioned why nonresidents weren’t visiting centers in their own towns.
“You can’t find a parking space,” she said. “Other people shouldn’t start taking it over or we’re not going to be able to come here. They should go to their own centers.”
Another Salem resident, 98-year-old Bertha Clarke, said it was unfortunate a cap was necessary.
“I think it’s a shame,” she said. “The place is so popular, they had to do something.”
Barbara Coish, who is in charge of Windham’s senior center, and Al Baldasaro, Londonderry’s Elder Affairs Committee chairman, said their towns’ centers offer plenty of programs for seniors to enjoy.
Coish said she didn’t believe 56 Windham residents go to Ingram. Windham’s center, which has 75 members, charges residents and nonresidents $10 a year, she said.
“We turn no one away,” Coish said. “If they want to exercise, they can exercise here.”
Baldasaro said the Londonderry center has about 450 members, including nonresidents. Everyone pays a $10 annual fee.
“Our services are open to all areas,” he said. “It’s sad if a town is picking and choosing.”