MARICOPA — After a year of standing six-feet apart, the community of Maricopa and its members are getting ready for the opening of a new community center this summer, and the return of simple joys like sharing a good conversation over a cup of joe and some doughnuts.
“I think we’ve all learned with COVID, how devastating isolation is,” said Joan Koczor, local senior advocate and member of the Maricopa Age-Friendly Committee.
“We are looking forward to having a (community) center of our own, a sense of permanence and a place to go.”
The Maricopa Community Center will take over the previous public library, which has since moved to a glamorous new home next to Maricopa City Hall, and will house both the seniors and veterans centers.
According to Koczor, Maricopa is the only city in Arizona without a dedicated, brick-and-mortar community center. But all that is about to change this summer, and it starts with the renovations going on right now.
Nathan Ullyot, director of Community Services for the city of Maricopa said the renovations to the previous library building on Smith Enke and Porter roads will be minimal.
“It’ll be mainly upgrading to make sure everything’s good there,” Ullyot said. “It won’t be a ton of remodel work — it’ll be similar to the library, adapting the space a little bit and mostly making sure the floor is good, the ceiling’s good, things like that.”
The city is spending around $50,000 on the renovations. On the east side of the building, the seniors will have a dedicated space with two different community rooms for different activities. The veterans center will occupy the east side of the building, and a large open space for events will run down the middle.
Ullyot estimates the center space could hold up to 100 people for anything from a senior lunch-and-learn to a theatrical performance, and he plans to add more ceiling lighting and flexible staging to make the room usable for different arts and activities. As opposed to fixed furniture, the city is providing flexible tables, chairs and some games.
A flagpole will be added to the front of the building, as well as more handicap-accessible parking spaces.
The renovation won’t take long, and the city anticipates move in day will fall in June or July.
“It’s already started, so we’re hoping within 60 days, but it could be earlier, it could be later,” Ullyot said. “We want to have the seniors in there in the summer, for sure, and then when the vets are ready, they’ll move over.”
While the seniors have not yet had a formal space within the city, the veterans have called their post along Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway home for around ten years.
The Maricopa Community Center will be more than a new building for the veterans in Maricopa, it will be a new place to foster community and congregate with one another.
“A veteran hanging out with another veteran, it’s like we talk a language and we have experiences that only veterans can understand,” said Bryan Moore. “When we’re able to sit down and shoot the breeze as a group of vets, it’s our own little world.”
Moore is commander of the American Legion post 133, and estimates there are over 7,000 veterans living in the city of Maricopa — just over 10% of the city’s population. That’s more than the national average of 7%, and Moore says it’s due in part to the bond that former military men and women share with one another.
Moore served nine years in the military, with six years in the Navy and three in the Army National Guard. He is one of many in his family who have been in the service, including his uncle, grand uncle, niece and nephew. Moore is also commander for the Sons of the American Legion post 133 and his ten-year-old son Parker is a member.
The veteran community is irreplaceable for those who have been in the military, and a congregation space to ‘“shoot the breeze” is equally important. Moore said service officer Dennis Sommerfield is regularly in the office to help veterans with any questions they have related to their benefits or other issues — or just to chat.
Three organizations will share the new veterans center space, the American Legion Auxiliary Club, the Blue Star Mothers of Maricopa and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). With their departure from the old veterans building looming, there’s been a lot of sifting through memorabilia, clearing out of storage and reorganization going on at the current veterans center as they plan their move.
The new building doesn’t provide for nearly as much space as their previous location did, and they’ve had to make arrangements for storage elsewhere in the community.
“We have a lot of memorabilia, books, displays, plaques, pictures, all that kind of stuff on the walls,” Moore said. “The new facility does not have nearly the size space that we have (now) to store stuff, so we’re looking at offsite options.”
Ullyot acknowledged the new building will have less space than the previous one but said they plan to re-utilize spaces previously in the library.
“They will have space to store — I don’t know if it’s going to be dollar-for-dollar or foot-for-foot what they had at the current space, but we’re going to work with them to try to see what we can do,” Ullyot said.
Moore said their outdoor space will unfortunately also shrink with the new facility. Previously, veterans functions would be held in an outdoor covered space on their property, but Moore said they will either need to move their barbecues and fundraisers to a local park, or possibly the parking lot.
“We’re going to have to be a little creative,” Moore said.
The parking lot is part of the homeowners association through the Maricopa Grand Business Center, and those who wish to use it for events will need to request permission through the HOA.
“It probably requires an extra step,” Ullyot said. “I don’t think it’s off the table as far as that goes, we just have to get permission through the HOA.”
Veterans who want other ways to congregate can do so virtually through Moore’s successful Maricopa Veterans Facebook page, which provides a network of local-only veterans who support one another and offer jobs and services.
“We’re always trying to reach out to veteran members in the community,” Moore said. “If we can get more of the members in the community realize we’re out there and join, we can just make our community that much stronger.”
Similarly, the senior community is looking forward to strengthening community bonds in their new building, the first dedicated facility for senior members of the Maricopa community. Before this, seniors had been shuffled around quite a few times between fitness centers, local schools and Copper Sky facilities.
Koczor recalls her first ever senior community gathering in 2006, when she and five other members crowded into the dimly lit back room of the local Anytime Fitness, coffee pot and folding chairs in tow.
“It’s very, very important for us — it’s a sense of permanence for us, finally,” Koczor said. “It was very, very difficult to move, because we would get situated, we would get acclimated to the hours that we could use the facility, and then they were gone.”
Koczor is excited to use the new building for an array of new events and old favorites, including the senior lunch-and-learn series, game nights and guest speakers. The building also includes a galley kitchen, which Koczor anticipates using for the traditional coffee and doughnut senior breakfasts — a big upgrade from that Anytime Fitness backroom.
“With seniors, truthfully, you give ‘em a cup of coffee, a few cookies or a doughnut and we’re happy,” Koczor said. “Socialization is what’s key for us right now, just to be able to get together and meet new people.”
Koczor envisions the center as a resource not only for socialization, but also for information and community services, and plans to have a front desk dedicated to answer questions.
Age-Friendly Committee Member Ron Smith said that, as seniors move into the next phase of their life, it’s important to stay connected and informed.
“Very few of us are really prepared to learn how to take on a whole new phase of our life,” Smith said. “There’s so many things that you don’t think about, so many things you need to understand, so many new opportunities that you need your eyes open to. … It’s a great time of life. I think education for seniors to take advantage of this time of their life (is important).
“The Senior Center gives us that focal point.”