Mill Race Center has proven to be a ready recruiter of people more interested in refiring than retiring.

That was the vision Bob Pitman promoted 25 years ago when he spoke frequently of the future of the 50-plus population, the fastest-growing age segment in Bartholomew County.

Pitman was executive director from 1985 to 2014 of what eventually became Mill Race Center for active adults. He also became an evangelist for seniors interested in refining existing skills or learning new ones later in life to improve themselves and their community via their lifelong involvement.

Mill Race Center, the $7.8 million non-profit facility marking its fifth anniversary this month, is a key component in all that.

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The retired executive also said he believes the center is a key for cutting-edge programming on physical to emotional and social wellness, which is part of the still-new, in-house nonprofit Pitman Institute for Aging Well and other offerings.

The institute, under the umbrella of Mill Race Center, operates with the same board.

“Number one for me is seeing all the (agency) partners (together),” said Pitman, referring to building inhabitants such as Just Friends Adult Day Services and Columbus Regional Health’s fitness center with generous space in the 24,700-square-foot building.

Mill Race Center is clearly viewed differently than the former Bartholomew County Senior Citizens Center, launched in 1957 as the state’s first.

“A lot of folks in the community originally had some trouble making the shift mentally from a typical senior center to an active older adult center,” he said. “It’s quite apparent that the age range of those attending programs at Mill Race Center is much broader (now).”

In fact, that age range may be one of the most visible elements at the center, which offers activities ranging from tai chi to participatory musicals, from computer classes to crafts, from fitness to friendship bridge.

About 1.5 percent of the center’s 2,200 members — a number that is growing — are younger than 50, according to staff figures.

Plus, the center has seen a 24 percent rise in members’ participation at the center in the past year. Yet, Mill Race’s primary audience by far continues to be 50 plus, which is 34 percent of Bartholomew County’s population, according to the 2013 Census.

Most days, the center runs at its capacity of physical space for scheduling, said Dan Mustard, the center’s director of operations.

There is no detailed public discussion yet about expansion, but the structure, which had about 6,000 square feet trimmed from its original design to save money, was built with growth in mind.

“I don’t know that anybody really anticipated that level of participation in just the first five years,” Mustard said. “So, we realistically have to look at expansion somewhere just to accommodate all the traffic in the building.”

On a recent evening, the Columbus Clogging Company’s weekly practice was held in one of the three multi-purpose rooms.

Across the hallway, 87-year-old Marie Gray was engrossed in a knitting class with others of the retiree stage.

“I’m really enjoying the wide variety of ages, instead of being surrounded by — well, just old people,” Gray said with a laugh.

Organizers had talked of such a mix of ages as a possibility at Mill Race off and on for years.

In fact, they purposely declined to use a label such as senior center for the facility because they felt younger seniors — and younger people in general — would find the term a turn-off that would keep them away.

Gray recalled that some of her peers worried about younger people in the new building, and how well they would blend in with some people 40 years their senior.

The oldest Mill Race member is 103. Some of the younger ones are in their 40s. On most days and through most activities, actual ages seldom, if ever, have surfaced in conversation as the generations have blended.

“Our primary theme really is about aging well through our entire lives,” Mustard said. “And we’re about preparing for life’s next step of aging well.

“At each stage, people have different needs. For some folks, it’s finding healthy activities they can do with their grandchildren. For others maybe only in their 40s, they’re beginning to see that they must take care of themselves now and make positive changes to still be able to do things actively when they’re a little older.”

Denise Goodin, 61, of Columbus recently retired from teaching and dropped in on the center’s clogging group one day in November and loved it. Then she and her husband attended the center’s Super Saturday slate of activities recently, including presentations on black history and the center’s wide-ranging motorcoach trips, and decided to become members.

“I love the interaction of all the different ages,” Goodin said during a brief break in her clogging. “And for me, this kind of exercise is better than a treadmill. So, this helps keep me in shape.

“Otherwise, I might be sitting on the couch.”

The structure also houses Senior Products, a longtime senior-oriented business that makes commercial wiping cloths sold to manufacturers.

Columbus’ Barb Garton, a past, four-term president of the center’s board, prominently remembers that the previous center, known as the old Pump House a short distance away on Lindsey Street, was landlocked and couldn’t provide enough space for activities. In fact, just before the new center opened, the agency had spread its programs to four other satellite locations.

“The previous building was charming, but it couldn’t even begin to serve all the needs of people,” Garton said. “I think that, from the beginning, this Mill Race Center has been a success.”

Mill Race Center by the numbers

5: Years old

50: Approximate span of members’ ages

59: Years for the center’s existence as an agency

2,200: Estimated number of members

24,700: Square footage

Mill Race Center funding breakdown
  • 69 percent: Fundraising, resource development and program fees.
  • 11 percent: Membership fees of $55 annually.
  • 10 percent: United Way of Bartholomew County funding.
  • 10 percent: Tenant (such as Columbus Regional Health) rental space fees and community rentals.

The basics of Mill Race Center

History: Preceeded by the Retirement Foundation of Bartholomew County, launched in 1957. Then it became the Bartholomew County Senior Center and took the name of Mill Race Center in 2010, even before the new structure opened in February 2011.

Location: 900 Lindsey St., Columbus.

Mill Race Center hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. 

Activities: Broad range of exercise, travel, computer classes, crafts, arts, discussion groups, social and service groups, and other offerings.

Age: The center is aimed primarily at the 50-plus segment. But a variety of participants are younger, including some at the fitness center.

Membership fees: $55 per year. 

Information: 812-376-9241 or millracecenter.org.

Fitness center hours, fees: 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. Fitness center fees are separate at $29 and $39, depending upon the package.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.