For 15 years, Vern Maetzold was a regular at Minneapolis' Southwest Senior Center. It was a place close to home where he could eat lunch, take an exercise class or just spend time with his friends.

"It's been very significant for social support and providing some structure for my life," he said. "I live alone in an apartment, and it's been something I can count on to be there."

But after 40 years in south Minneapolis, Southwest Senior Center closed in June, a casualty of a funding cut. It was the third senior center in the Twin Cities to close in less than a year — St. Paul's City Passport closed in November, and downtown Minneapolis' Skyway Senior Center closed in March, both because of financial challenges.

"What's shocking is that as baby boomers age, we're going to need more senior centers, not fewer," said Michele Coppin, who taught visual art at the Southwest Senior Center. "It seems so illogical for this to be happening."

Southwest Senior Center programs drew about 1,000 participants over the course of a year, according to a spokesman for Volunteers of America (VOA), which operated the center. Those who used the center described it as a one-stop shop with an array of services from financial counseling to dance classes.

"I'm going to have to be checking out other programs now — they gave us a long list of referrals," said Judy Prentiss, who started going to the center after she retired from nursing about five years ago. "But who knows if they have the same things that I've been offered here?"

The Southwest Senior Center's financial troubles hit abruptly in April, when Greater Twin Cities United Way announced funding cuts stemming from a $6 million shortfall. VOA lost $150,000 — half its United Way funding.

"The Southwest Center depends on United Way funding for a large portion of its operating expenses," the VOA said in a news release. "The loss of this support created an unsustainable long-term funding gap."

The Skyway Senior Center, which relied on private funding and in-kind support from the city of Minneapolis, was unable to find a sponsor after UCare pulled out at the end of 2015. City Passport, jointly operated by St. Paul and HealthEast Care System, closed because declining use made it too costly to keep open.

Changing needs

The closures come at a time when aging baby boomers are turning away from traditional senior centers and choosing to spend time with people of all ages who share their interests, said Kari Benson, executive director at the Minnesota Board on Aging. But that doesn't mean senior centers are becoming a thing of the past, she said.

"What we've seen is that a senior center can actually just remain a senior center and a very vibrant, busy place if they do evolve to meet these changing needs," Benson said.

But those kinds of changes require resources.

During its heyday in the 1990s, the Sabathani Senior Independent Living Center in south Minneapolis had a full-time program manager and seven part-time staff members including a nurse, a janitor, two bus drivers and a cook, and served up to 800 people a year. Now there's one full-time employee and one part-time employee, and the center serves as many as 400 people a year.

On Monday morning, about a half-dozen regulars sat around a table at the senior center in a small space between the front desk and a back office. The nurse who usually comes in on Mondays for a free clinic was out, so they talked.

Casoline Norris has been going to the center for 25 years and remembers when it was a bustling place — when there were men playing dominoes, women quilting and a cook who served lunches every day.

"We used to have lots of activities going on here," she said.

"It's almost like a morgue now," Pauline May added.

Georgia Marinkov-Omorean, who has managed the center since it opened in 1980, balances limited funding and staff with trying to update the center's programming. She's brought in partner organizations including the music group VocalEssence and the University of Minnesota, and she does a lot of things herself, from teaching exercise classes to organizing an annual holiday party for more than 200 people.

After losing state and federal funding, plus United Way money, trying to keep things going with a patchwork of small grants is "impossible," she said.

"We do what we can do — what we can afford to do," she said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509