Not long after retiring as a secretary at the Philadelphia Naval Base 15 years ago, Jannette Robinson found a new daily routine at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center in North Philadelphia, that's been housed inside the MLK Recreation Center for decades.

"It means a lot to me because I don't like to stay home," Robinson said of the center.  "I'm used to getting up.  I'm used to going to work. I like to get out and be around people. I like doing things."

So, Robinson, 77, was happy to be in the crowd at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April for the new Martin Luther King Older Adult Center, a project that had been proposed at least 20 years ago.

The MLK Line Dancers performed in celebration. Mayor Kenney, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and other officials were all smiles when television cameras documented the April 25 dedication of the $4.3 million, 10,000-square-foot center on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 21st Street, next door to the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA.

But three months later, the brand-new center sits empty and unused. Seniors still must use the adult space at the MLK Recreation Center near 22nd Street for their line dancing and art classes, their bingo and card games, their shooting pool.  But with this being summer, the seniors often get displaced from their exercise room by the large numbers of kids using the rec center.

The reason they've been told they can't use the empty building down the street? It doesn't have furniture.

Ruth Gay, a retired mail handler at the old 30th Street post office who uses the center nearly every day except Tuesdays — "On Tuesdays, I bowl," she said — has been frustrated by the delay.

"It's funded through the city and the city don't have the money for the furniture," said Gay.  "If this was a white neighborhood, everything would have been together when we had the grand opening."

To Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, however, the only color at issue is red tape.

"I wish it was just the furniture," Ott Lovell said.  "I feel terribly because the seniors have waited so long. Now it's sitting there, and it's beautiful, and they're not in it yet.  They have been so incredibly patient."

Ott Lovell called the April dedication "premature," as the building still had to transfer ownership from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to the city, which can't happen until the center receives its certificate of occupancy. The certificate has been delayed because of minor issues that needed to be fixed in order to serve hot food — a door sweep in the kitchen, for example, said Jacqueline Maldonado, director of the MLK Older Adult Center.

After being contacted by the Inquirer and the Daily News, officials said the certificate would be issued any day now, and as for the transfer of ownership: "We're scheduling settlement with the city for next week, and this will be resolved shortly," Parks and Rec spokesman Alain Joinville said Friday.

Clarke has inquired more than once about the delay in opening the center, his spokeswoman Jane Roh said.

The rec center that seniors are still using until the new Older Adult Center opens (far right, in front of the church).
Tom Gralish
The rec center that seniors are still using until the new Older Adult Center opens (far right, in front of the church).

At the rec center, where lunch is served for a dollar and special bus trips to Atlantic City casinos or Washington are offered, the seniors were trying to stay optimistic.

"It doesn't pay to get all riled up," Robinson said. "We've waited a long time for the building. We can wait a little longer."

Not all people could. Seniors said a few center advocates have died while waiting for the center to open.

Ott Lovell apologized for the delay and for not making it clear why the building has yet to open.

But, she added, "the furniture is on order."