Lola Lesheim-Panschar leads a yoga class at the Skyway Senior Center. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Lola Lesheim-Panschar leads a yoga class at the Skyway Senior Center. Photo by Dylan Thomas

New partnership could save the Skyway Senior Center

Updated: November 17, 2016 - 1:02 pm

Ecumen has 120 days to make a decision

The Skyway Senior Center and Ecumen are exploring a partnership that could rescue the center from a funding pinch that threatened to close its doors before the end of the year.

Ecumen, a senior housing and services provider based in Shoreview, has expressed interest in taking over operation of the center from the Minneapolis Health Department. In November, the City Council voted to approve a 120-day exclusive dealing period for Ecumen to negotiate the terms of a handoff.

Sara Goodnough, the center’s coordinator, said there remained “more unknowns than knowns” following the Council vote. But Goodnough said the potential partnership with Ecumen was “definitely a really great option to secure the future of the center.”

“We literally spent the last year meeting with potential sponsors and trying to secure the financial future of the center, and this came along at the perfect time,” she said.

The City Council also approved a $60,000 donation from the non-profit Friends of the Skyway Senior Center to keep the center open after it lost its most recent sponsor, Augustana Care, in June. Previously, UCare sponsored the center from 2010 until 2015, when the health maintenance organization ended the arrangement amid a series of cuts and layoffs following the loss of state contracts that made up the bulk of its business.

The 2,000-square-foot center, located in the downtown skyway above LaSalle Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, provides a space for seniors to relax, socialize and participate in group activities. It opened in 2001 and now serves an estimated 74 visitors a day.

Goodnough said the center operates on an annual budget of approximately $186,000 and serves a wide range of Minneapolis residents age 50 and older, “everyone from people who are homeless to wealthy homeowners and condo-dwellers.”

“So, it’s a really economically and racially diverse population who utilizes our center,” she said.

She said the center’s mission has evolved over the years into reducing social isolation. Nearly three-quarters of visitors live alone.

Ecumen, one of the largest non-profit organizations serving seniors in the state, offers services to older adults in over 30 locations. Its mission is to keep seniors active, engaged and healthy, spokesman Ben Taylor said.

Taylor said the center “serves an important role in the community” and that Ecumen would seek to first “stabilize” the center and then expand its work beyond the skyway. But operating the center would also be totally new territory for the 150-year-old organization, Taylor said, and Ecumen is proceeding cautiously.

“We’re just into this 120-day exploratory period, and it’s going to take us into a new year before we make a decision,” he said.