Hundreds of senior citizens sat in the recreation room of the Costa Mesa Senior Center last week inspecting this year's holiday gifts: mugs containing candy and a $5 gift card good at various stores, including the supermarket.
Last year, the nonprofit that was running the center didn't have enough money to buy gift cards for everyone, so they held a raffle-style drawing. Some staff members and their families walked away with multiple gift cards, while several seniors left empty-handed.
"The seniors were not happy about that," said Ernie Feeney, a former board member who often frequents the center. "It was a real downer."
But things were different on Friday, when about 200 people were welcomed to the Christmas party, considered by many to be the center's pinnacle event each year.
The party coincided with the center's grand reopening after a three-month closure for renovations.
The revamp cost about $200,000. The new paint, carpets, countertops and refinished woodwork represent a new era for the center under city management, Feeney said.
"It's like night and day," she said. "It truly is a pleasant place."
The celebration ended a difficult year for the center on a high note, participants said.
The center, at 695 W. 19th St., was rocked by news of financial insolvency, which jump-started the city's lengthy takeover. In June, a former employee of the center was arrested on suspicion of embezzling from the facility. Interactions between visitors and the center's board grew tense.
The center, which had been a hub of social activity for Costa Mesa's older population, stopped being fun, said volunteer Stella Adkins, a former board member.
Seniors accused the staff of being rude and publicly ridiculing several guests.
The 20,000-square-foot facility at one time served about 300 to 400 people a day, but the number had dwindled in recent years, according to those who frequent the center.
"It was a cold atmosphere and people stopped coming," Adkins said.
According to city officials, participation has increased this year, with 1,101 people signing up for the center's programs, parties and newsletter.
The city has always owned the senior center building, but officials began contemplating taking over its management after the Costa Mesa Senior Center Corp.'s financial problems came to light in January.
The nonprofit's board projected that its general fund would run dry by June. But it fought a city takeover, hoping to use money from a foundation set up by a former center regular, Albert Dixon, to shore up its budget.