Republicans and Democrats working together? The concept had Todd Fliedner almost giddy while touring an old insurance building being converted into the new Bay Ridge Center for seniors in Brooklyn a few weeks ago.
“We received support from both sides of the aisle!” Fliedner, the nonprofit’s executive director, told New York Nonprofit Media, a sister publication of City & State. A $5 million fundraising campaign to convert the new space had landed support from former GOP state Sen. Marty Golden, and Democratic current state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, City Council Member Justin Brannan and former Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus.
The lion’s share, however, came via Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. Fliedner recalled her wanting to help the center expansion while she was still a member of the Assembly. Then after her election to Congress in 2020, she found the money in the form of a $2 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Having kept in touch with the center, the Congress member had not forgotten the commitment she made to provide the support.
"For almost 50 years, the Bay Ridge Center has provided Brooklyn seniors with a place to exercise their minds and bodies, grow their independence and increase their community involvement," Malliotakis said at the groundbreaking for the expansion in February. "I am confident that this massive expansion and upgrades will allow (the center) to serve so many more seniors in our community with the services they deserve and provide a comfortable place to gather and thrive for years to come."
Brannan called the expanded center “absolutely magical.”
“This is what all senior centers in the greatest city in the world should look like! Our seniors quite literally helped build this city and this is what our architects deserve,” he told New York Nonprofit Media. “I've been a longtime supporter of the Bay Ridge Center, so of course I supported this endeavor and I'm heartened to know this center enjoys bipartisan support."
Politicians getting behind a community service organization isn’t something new. But for a small nonprofit like Bay Ridge Center, maintaining and leveraging its relationships with its electeds was key to making the expansion become a reality. It’s a model for success other small organizations can follow, Fliedner said.
“This was one of those rare instances where we had a project that everybody could get behind. Bipartisanship is definitely out there and working. We just don't see it,” he told NYN Media. “To me, this is a shining example where everybody from both sides of the fence got together and said, ‘Yes, the older adults of Southwest Brooklyn deserve this.’”
The Bay Ridge Center’s new building at 15 Bay Ridge Ave., the former 21,000-square-foot home of a MetLife insurance office, is slated to officially open Nov. 1. It includes spaces for all of the nonprofit’s programming, as well as new administrative offices. The nonprofit will continue to use its original home in the basement of Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Fourth Avenue, where the center maintains its kitchen facilities to prepare congregate meals and food packages that are distributed throughout southern Brooklyn. The basement, which also serves as the church’s auditorium, has been home to the senior center, rent free, since the organization was started in 1976.
It was business as usual for years until opportunity opened up with its contract agency, the New York City Department of Aging. Predictions show that the population of New Yorkers age 60 and older would grow to 1.86 million by 2040, according to the agency’s most recent annual plan. That’s a 49% increase from 2000. Fieldner said that some of the highest growth in the population was expected right in the center’s backyard. “Southwest Brooklyn is one of the areas that is going to see some of the most growth in the senior population in the next 10 years. There’s going to be a silver tsunami by 2030. Seniors are going to outnumber everybody,” he said.
In response to the predictions, the Department of Aging released a Community Care Plan, where the agency planned to add 25 additional “Older Adults Centers” and “Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities” in locations around the city where older New Yorkers were underserved. The plan was billed as the largest expansion in aging services in two decades, according to the department.
Bay Ridge Center, already under contract with the department, answered a new request for proposals, which was approved, allowing the center to continue providing the same community services, but now with a budget line for the rental of a large working space to house all of its programs. The expansion also is expected to bring opportunities for partners to work with the organization. Fliedner credits regular interactions with the city for landing the new contract, which with the fundraising campaign made the expansion of the center possible.
Expectations are high among the center’s staff. “We're happy to accommodate more people,” said Jay Williams, an assistant chef who helps prepare 650 hot meals delivered daily to the center’s clients. His brother Omar, the center’s food service manager, said the new center will help accommodate a much higher volume of hungry people. “We're going to double the number of congregate meals we serve,” he told NYN Media. “I'm truly truly excited about it!”
The expansion also creates new space for the center’s administrative staff. Candice Sessoms, director operations at the center, would be moving from a cramped shared space at the church where she had worked for the last three years into a much larger, brightly lit office of her own that she jokingly said she had to fight off Fliedner to get. “Everybody gets their own offices,” Sessoms she told her boss as they both laughed. For Sessoms, the additional space of a new building was a top priority for the center’s programming.
“We can be more creative in the work that we do,” she said. “Health and wellness now has its own room. Computers have their own room. Art has its own room. Music has its own room. Then we have the administration in the back. The congregate area is where (people) will eat versus the area where all the activities take place. We designed this place so that whatever (we have to offer), there's a room specifically for it.”
Local resident Sam Gamadia, a 77-year-old retired electrical company worker who has diabetes and depends on the center for its meal program, welcomed the expansion. “It's good food, (especially) when my blood sugar is down,” he said while accepting a food package from the center’s staff at the center’s basement location. “I’ve been coming here a long time. I’ll be coming to the new place too.”