Senior Centre unveils new expansion and activity spaces

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

After months of heavy construction, seniors in Fort Frances have brand new spaces at the Fort Frances Senior Centre to take part in the activities they love.

As part of an official ribbon cutting held at the centre on Saturday, January 20, 2024, Fort Frances administration officials, along with town councillors, Senior Centre staff and even the mayor celebrated the grand opening of the new Senior Centre spaces. The newly added expansion to the Centre located at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Nelson Street adds several new spaces that are dedicated to specific activities, cutting down on the amount of set-up and teardown that was formerly necessary in the main area.

The need for an expansion to the Senior Centre came about following discussions that stretch back years regarding the size of the existing building and possible alternate locations. Once relocating the centre was ruled out, and a $466,125 grant for an expansion from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) was received in November 2021, the major construction work began in the spring of 2023 and was mostly completed by the end of the calendar year.

The new expansion adds on a sizeable chunk of space, roughly 3,600 square feet, to the centre, allowing for an exercise room, card room, pool and billiards room, as well as a meeting space. Each of the activity rooms is bright with natural light and colour-coded, and will also keep noises from rebounding through areas that might be intended for quieter activities.

The major construction work on the expansion was undertaken by Tom Jones Construction, who also handled the construction work on the original building, and electrical services were performed by M.L. Caron Electric.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony, Debbie McTaggart, the chair for the Fort Frances Senior Centre Board, explained that the centre’s main area served as the staging area for almost all of the activities and events held at the Senior Centre in years past, which led to multiple set-ups and take-downs of materials throughout a single day and into the next.

“Now we can set this room up… and leave it as it is,” she said.

“The new addition has a dedicated room for exercise that doesn’t disturb other events, and vice versa. There’s limited set-up and take-down required. There’s a dedicated room for all the card games and the tables are set up all the time. We have a pool, billiards, shuffle board room that is available all day long. As our population ages, we have a full multi-use facility that is well position for the future of Fort Frances and area. We have a centre that we’ll all be proud of.”

Alongside activities like cards and billiards, and exercise programs like tai chi and line dancing, McTaggart also noted that the Senior Centre provides blood sugar and blood pressure checks on a monthly basis, as well as being available for rental for birthdays and anniversaries.

Fort Frances Mayor Andrew Hallikas spoke at the ribbon cutting, offering his congratulations to the staff and volunteers who worked towards the new expansion, and celebrating what the Senior Centre represents for those who use it.

“Fort Frances, and indeed the entire Rainy River District, has an aging population,” Hallikas said.

“Seniors comprise an ever-increasing percentage of the population of Fort Frances, but it is the seniors – you people – that built this community. You worked, paid taxes, raised families, volunteered, donated to charitable causes and served the community in many other ways for most of your lives, and many, many seniors continue to do these things. So seniors need a place where they can utilize their accumulated wisdom and skillset, and this is one such place.”

While the cause for the ribbon cutting was the new expansion, much of the conversation reflected on the crucial contributions of Sister Betty Kennedy, who was the original namesake of the building, and the one most attendees still preferred to use in conversation. Former Fort Frances mayor Deane Cunningham recalled his interactions with the Sister, who fiercely advocated for, and achieved, a dedicated space for seniors during his time in municipal politics.

“Back in the late 1970’s, there was a movement to establish a drop-in centre where seniors could go for a cup of coffee and socialize,” Cunningham said.

“A group of people, including Sister Kennedy, acquired a room in the old Pentecostal Church on Church street… and started Pleasant Pastime Place, a drop-in centre for seniors. Sister Kennedy saw the success the centre was having attracting seniors, but also saw the limitations of the room they were renting. She envisioned a facility that would provide more room and that would allow a much wider range of activities. So she became a committee of one on a mission to see her vision of a new Senior Centre fulfilled.”

Cunningham said that sister Kennedy felt the town should be involved in the creation of that new centre, inviting Cunningham and town officials to see Pleasant Pastime Place and pushing other officials such as Dave Bourgeault, another speaker at the ribbon cutting ceremony and at the time an officer of the Ministry of Northern Affairs (now the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines) to help secure support and funding.

“She was persistent, and ‘no’ was not an answer she ever accepted,” Cunningham recalled.

“Her persistence paid off. In July of 1981, the council passed a by-law setting up a committee for the purpose of constructing a senior centre on the site of the old St. Mary’s School. Funding was arranged, fundraising locally was begun, soon a contract was let, and the building was commenced. The grand opening of this building was on October 22, 1983.”

Cunningham called Sister Kennedy a “remarkable woman,” recognizing the need for such a building and working tirelessly to make it a reality. He also noted that if the Fort Frances citizen of the Year existed back in those days, she likely would have received the nomination.

The Fort Frances Senior Centre is open to those aged 55+ from Monday to Saturday each week, with a hot lunch served Monday through Thursday. For more information about programs and activities at the centre, visit their Facebook page, or call the centre at 807-274-7656.