Aging Institute cuts raise questions

TRAVERSE CITY – The Aging Institute of Michigan, which expanded with several staff additions, new office space and high profile events this spring, has apparently closed its doors and laid-off staff due to financial difficulties.

The Traverse City-based non-profit Institute largely funded its expansion via a grant from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Michigan. The non-profit provided a grant of more than $75,000 to the Aging Institute to help fund the Senior Summit, a community-wide survey regarding senior issues, and a new web site to help affiliated organizations share best practices.

AARP Michigan Director Steve Gools said only the Summit has been completed to date.

Mary Doezema, president and founder of the Aging Institute, began working last year to build a coalition that would tackle senior-related issues in the region. Organizations including the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association and the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau worked with the Aging Institute in attempting to make the Grand Traverse region a "senior sensitive marketplace," thus attracting more high net worth retirees as residents, increase visitor dollars, and create jobs.

Last summer, the Institute moved into offices in the Chamber's headquarters building and hired several staff members. The organization also sponsored a Chamber Business After Hours event, and launched an advertising campaign to promote the "Senior Summit, Conference on Aging 2006" held in April at the Grand Traverse Resort.

Ben Tremblay, the Institute's former director of business development, said the organization experienced major changes immediately after the Senior Summit in April.

"The bank account ran out, basically. We were sat down and told we were not getting a paycheck, and we should immediately find other employment."

Tremblay added that he and other staffers were not paid for the previous two weeks of work, though he added he would be "back in a minute" if there was funding and a strong business plan.

The Institute moved out of the Chamber building in July and is apparently now operating out of Doezema's home. The current phone number for the Aging Institute is also her home phone number. The Institute's web site is "under construction," and several sources said the Institute still has unpaid bills associated with the Senior Summit.

Chamber President Doug Luciani declined to divulge if the Chamber is one of the Institute's creditors.

Doezema did not return requests for an interview.

Sally Ericson-Bornschein of Port of Old Mission and an active participant in the coalition, said, "There has been a lot of really good work as a result of Mary's efforts. She brought together several organizations who were working independently and are now working together. But she was clearly over her head in terms of business."

The Institute's decline raises questions about the viability of the coalition and its cause, yet both Gools and Luciani insist the collaboration here is unparalleled in the State, and they hope the coalition would move forward, with or without the Aging Institute.

Luciani said, "The Chamber continues to strongly support efforts to create a senior sensitive marketplace in the region, one that views our population of 50-plus residents as an economic resource."

AARP's Gools added, "We do not expect to be offering any future grants in Traverse City, but we do look forward to working with partners like the Chamber and community leaders to keep the collaboration going and make a strong economy based in part on older people, who tend to have less debt, access to 401(k)s, and more disposable income." BN