When West Ashley resident Tom Witman retired six years ago, he looked for a place where he could get together with others around his age for a cup of coffee and some stimulating lectures and discussions, but there was no senior center in the area.

Senior wish list

The West Ashley Senior Services Coordinating Committee in 2010 asked area seniors about what they would like a senior center to offer. The nearly 500 people who responded said they would like the following services:

Fitness center

Walking paths

Exercise classes

Wellness programs


Cafe with hot meals

Local and current events speakers

Local field trips

Social events


Arts and crafts

Now the city of Charleston has such a center in the works, said City Councilman Aubry Alexander. The city will build the center on the Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital campus. It's likely to open in 2016. Roper St. Francis Healthcare will manage the center after it opens, just as it does the Lowcountry Senior Center on James Island, the city's only other center for adults 50 and up.

It's too early to know everything that the West Ashley center will offer, said Elizabeth Bernat, director of the James Island center, which opened in 2002. Roper St. Francis will survey local residents to determine what they want, she said. But the facility will have a fitness center and will offer an array of health and fitness programs. It also will have spaces for seniors to gather for conversation or a meal.

The James Island center has a computer lab, an arts room, a lending library and a multi-purpose room, and the West Ashley center could offer similar programs, she said.

Bernat said Roper St. Francis already offers some programs for seniors at the city's Bees Landing Recreation Center, and it will expand its offerings there until the new center opens.

Theodora Dougherty, who takes an Arthritis Foundation exercise class there, said she hopes the new senior center offers Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba and a singing group.

Christina Nolan, another class participant, said she hopes it will have a pool, but that's not in the plans for the center. She also would like some computer classes and a book group.

Witman said the push for the center began more than five years ago when he reached out to Colleen Condon, who represents much of West Ashley on Charleston County Council, with the idea. That conversation sparked interest from Charleston City Council members who represent West Ashley, as well as other seniors and representatives of groups that serve them. "Before we knew it, we had 30 to 40 members," Witman said.

The group met about once a month, refining the idea and the plans over the years, he said.

West Ashley needs the center, he said, because the James Island center is too far away and the routes there are too clogged with traffic for many older West Ashley residents. "This has been a long time coming and it's been a lot of hard work," he said.

Alexander said the 15,000-square-foot center will cost around $7 million. The city plans to come up with most of the money over the next two years. So far, it has about $2.5 million, he said, and it's also looking for grants.

Roper St. Francis officials will participate in the building process, because they will manage the center when it's complete, he said. The city currently is working on a memorandum of understanding with Roper St. Francis, he said, but the details of the deal haven't been worked out.

The committee that was exploring options for a senior center a few years ago put out a request for proposals for groups to manage the center, Alexander said. It got only two responses. Roper St. Francis's proposal was better than the other one, which was submitted by an out-of-state group.

Bernat said Roper St. Francis has a history of providing health and wellness promotion in the community. And the senior centers allow the company to work in partnership with the city. "It's a great way to bring services to the community without burdening one party," she said. "We share the burden."

Laurie Yarbrough, the city's director of recreation and liaison to the James Island senior center, said the city contributes $20,000 per year for operations at the Lowcountry Senior Center. That money goes to the center, not Roper St. Francis, she said.

If the center make money, Roper St. Francis get 6 percent of the profit. But the center hasn't made money since at least 2008, she said.

Condon, who has been involved in the project since its inception, said the county has allocated $400,000 for the West Ashley center in the 2014 budget. "We're making good progress," she said. "The citizenry of the county and West Ashley includes a lot of active adults who are 50 and up."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.