We’ve been hearing about the shortcomings of the Tolles Parsons Center‘s kitchen almost ever since the Council on Aging (COA) headquarters opened in 2017 on Washington Street. But discussion of that kitchen—home to commercial-grade appliances the Council doesn’t have town permission to use—has heated up in recent weeks because of a COA capital budget request for $50K to study how to optimize the kitchen (and to study possible safety changes at the facility).
The COA hashed out the topic at its Jan. 20 meeting (about 1 hour and 40 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording), the Select Board has spent good chunks of time on the subject at each of its last two meetings (Jan. 24 and Jan. 31), and the Advisory Committee covered the matter at its Jan. 26 meeting (discussion commences about a half hour into the Wellesley Media recording) on the Select Board’s Boards/Committees/Departments Budget Presentation.
I’ve listened to much of the back and forth across those meetings, but will focus here on the Jan. 31 Select Board meeting discussion.
COA Board Chair Marlene Allen asked the Select Board, during citizen speak in the opening minutes, to reconsider its 3-2 vote the previous week related to the FY23 budget. The Board voted to nix the $50K capital request, $30K of which would go toward the proposed kitchen study, which would look at options. This would include consideration of how to achieve a commercial kitchen that might be used for things like cooking classes, demonstrations, maybe regular breakfasts.
“The kitchen cannot be licensed in its current form,” Allen said. “New COAs are being built with commercial kitchens. We build for the future to allow for growth and expansion of programs, not limit ourselves to the past. The community center kitchen was a catering kitchen. The planners of the COA had requested a commercial kitchen. The taxpayers paid for a commercial kitchen. The seniors want to use the kitchen…I do not believe there is any other town building that has been turned over to the users without being fully permitted for use.”
(Indeed, a Wellesley Media video tour of the Tolles Parsons Center shortly after it opened takes a spin through “the full commercial kitchen.”)
During its agenda item on the town budget later during the meeting (around 1 hour, 15 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording), board members had at it for more than a half hour.
Board Chair Tom Ulfelder recommended that rather than going back and reviewing schematic designs and original intentions for the kitchen, that efforts would be better spent looking forward based on the realities of today. In the wake of the previous week’s board meeting, Ulfelder asked Executive Director Meghan Jop and Facilities Director Joe McDonough to reach out to the Health Department to find out what it would entail for the Tolles Parsons Center to get its kitchen licensed to meet COA goals.
Those goals are what Ulfelder wants to be clear on before approving funds for a consulting study, and he referenced a request of the COA during an earlier budget summit to outline envisioned programming changes. Having this information would give the Board a better idea of how such changes would affect operating costs. “We have a responsibility in managing town finances to look at that and look at that in an appropriate, traditional order before we make a decision on what capital expenditures need to me made.”
Like others on the Board, Ulfelder agreed changes are needed at the Tolles Parsons Center despite the fact that the building is only four-and-a-half years old. He floated the idea of doing groundwork in the months ahead and possibly readying a fall Town Meeting article to appropriate funds for a study or even a designer at that point.
“I don’t regret my vote last Monday, because I believe that when I vote for the capital funds for this project it’s going to be money better spent for a better end result for our senior population who use that building,” Ulfelder said.
He’d like to see the issue addressed through the town and not involve the COA dipping into its big donation from Richard Campana earmarked for senior programs.
“If the town made a mistake in what we built in that kitchen, then I believe that the town ought to stand behind that and we ought to participate in a proper request for services…” he added.
Board member Lise Olney said “it’s crazy to have a kitchen that can’t be used,” though added it would be critical for timing of any related project to fit into the town’s Facilities Management Department schedule, which is currently at capacity. “It is kind of baffling as to why this wasn’t on the capital plan earlier,” she said.
Approving the funds now didn’t seem like a stretch for the board, according to Beth Sullivan Woods. “If we believe we want to move this kitchen toward a place where we can understand how to activate it, approving the funds now for the kitchen—and I would say for the entrance safety way—seems practical and prudent since all of us seem to acknowledge there’s a problem,” she said. Consulting funds could be used to figure out what could be done within the building’s footprint, she added later in the meeting.
One thing that seems clear today is that the COA kitchen is nowhere close to being commercial kitchen ready, and that making it so might even require a building expansion, which would raise new challenges. Executive Director Jop said, “That design as it is today would have no indication that it was ever set up to a be a commercial kitchen ever, because a commercial kitchen would have had…enhanced refrigeration, so basically a walk-in, it would have had different areas for dry goods and storage, it would have had a sanitation path which is how you take out trash, and the other thing is [you need] a staff person…” Special cleaning accommodations would also be required.
So for now, funding for a kitchen study is on the back burner. But those involved have pledged to get working on a plan that they hope by fall can move things forward.