Irene O’Brien, left, and Kathy Shelp are the previous and current directors of elder services in North Andover.

NORTH ANDOVER — At the recent groundbreaking for North Andover’s new senior center, state Sen. Bruce Tarr joked that there were so many people present, they could have shaved 30% off the cost of the project by grabbing some tools and helping with the construction.

While many of those in attendance did finally pick up shovels, they fortunately left serious excavation to the professionals and removed only a few, ceremonial handfuls of dirt, as is appropriate on such occasions.

But Tarr also pointed out that the work he had mentioned was a metaphor for “the kind of energy and enthusiasm there is around this project,” which ultimately made the new senior center a reality.

“It’s going to happen because we are all inspired by the council on aging, which is one of the most active, busy, innovative councils on aging in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said.

Therefore, it was appropriate that, along with Tarr and state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, state Reps. Tram Nguyen and Christina Mincucci, as well as Town Manager Melissa Murphy-Rodrigues, all five members of North Andover’s Select Board and the heads of North Andover’s police and fire departments and public schools, both Irene O’Brien and Kathy Shelp were present at the groundbreaking.

They are the previous and current directors of North Andover’s Elder Services department, respectively, and have strong ideas about how the senior center should operate.

“When I came to North Andover, we were servicing about 2,000 (people,)” said O’Brien, who started in 2001 and left last spring. “When I left, we were serving about 6,000. There was need for more programs, more services, and we didn’t have the space to do that.”

That was in spite of the fact that the current senior center behind Town Hall was expanded twice, she said, which also left it with cooling and heating systems that had “no rhyme or reason.”

While that center measures 7,800 square feet in a two-story building, the new building will also stand two stories tall, but will contain 13,550 square feet.

These will be divided into a multipurpose room, kitchen, cafe or lounge area, office space, fitness room, game room, three activity rooms, and an outdoor patio area. Occupying a site where the Knights of Columbus previously stood, it will also be accompanied by 81 parking spaces.

Castagna Construction of Danvers was awarded a contract of $7,907,462 for the project, which is expected to take 14 months to complete, after the start date was delayed by the pandemic.

“We thought we would be in in 2020, and here we are going into 2022 and we’re still not there,” O’Brien said. “But COVID hit, everything went on the back burner.”

O’Brien said she contributed her ideas to the building’s design, which will not only accommodate more visitors, but will also allow staff to organize programs that support more seniors in their homes.

“The outreach to the community, to me personally, is one of the most important things a community can do to get to those who can’t come to the senior center,” she said. “When you think about it, healthy nutrition, healthy brain, and a longer life.”

Shelp, who started in North Andover last June, was previously director of senior services in Groton, where she saw how a new facility increases participation in programs.

“The impact of this on the community is going to be huge,” she said. “I’ve been through this. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced this. We’re going to see, participation is going to go up 30% at least. The enthusiasm it will build, and the people it will support, will be significant.”

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