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Huntington breaks ground on long-awaited new senior center

It has been eight years since Huntington Beach voters decided in November 2006 that Central Park would be the location of a new senior center.

Though lawsuits and funding issues kept the project on the back burner for years, Wednesday marked the beginning of a new chapter for the city as officials broke ground at the site.

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More than 100 people, including many former Surf City mayors, gathered on a nearly leveled 5-acre plot off Goldenwest Street and Talbert Avenue to see City Council members and other officials stick shovels into the ground and turn the dirt.

"This is absolutely a long time coming for us to have this day, and to have the groundbreaking this year is so heartening," Mayor Matthew Harper said. "We've approved the financing, the construction manager and we're about to approve at the City Council the group that will have the construction contract for this senior center."

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Council members are expected to decide Monday which contractor will build the planned 37,563-square-foot facility.

The project's total cost is estimated at $21.5 million. In August, the council approved a $16.4 million bond to help pay for it. The city also plans to pull about $4.5 million from the general and infrastructure funds.

On Monday, Hoag Hospital donated $3.775 million toward the senior center, about $2 million of which will be allocated to construction. The remainder will go toward senior services and programs.

"The setting is so perfect, and I'm glad that the vote of the people has been validated," Councilman Dave Sullivan said.

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Sullivan has said repeatedly that the existing Rodgers Seniors' Center, at Orange Avenue and 17th Street, is the worst senior building in Orange County, though he said it arguably has the best services, which include fitness and wellness classes and free transportation.

Now, Sullivan said, the facility will finally match the programs.

"What I'm most thrilled about is that the people from the World War II era that gave us so much and have needed this are going to have it. It's a really wonderful thing," Sullivan said.

A hurdle remains: a longstanding dispute between the city and the Parks Legal Defense Fund, a residents group that sued the city in 2008, arguing that the project's environmental impact report was insufficient.

In July, the state's 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the city in one of the group's lawsuits, but another is pending. Many local officials, including City Atty. Jennifer McGrath, have said they believe the city will win again.

Huntington Beach has spent about $1.1 million in legal fees defending the project, McGrath said Wednesday.

"We always thought that the project was going to be successful, but there were a lot of hurdles in the way," former Mayor Ralph Bauer said. "The government has its way and the public has its way, and they all have to be heard. We just hung in there."

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