The skies may have been dark, but the faces of Kathleen Kamins and Kit Illingworth were glowing as they left the new senior wing of the Finley Community Center Wednesday.

The pair had just spent the afternoon drinking coffee by the fire, taking a ukulele lesson, and playing a few rounds of doubles ping pong.

"That was a ball!" said Kamins, 68, beside the statue of Peanuts characters Lucy and Linus that graces the central courtyard.

"It's a beautiful facility," added Illingworth, 64.

The first floor of the new Person Senior Wing of the community center is now open, offering a variety of classes and activities to folks 50 years and older.

A steady stream of seniors passed through the 24,000-square-foot center's glass doors Wednesday, paying the modest $2 fee to participate in drop-in activities like scrabble, pinochle, ping pong, and ukulele practice.

"The seniors are really in heaven," said Mary Beggs, a recreation specialist who works the front desk.

Fund-raising for new wing began in 2002 and accelerated after the 2010 groundbreaking for the $2.4 million building shell.

Some considered it risky for the city to build the shell in the middle of a recession without having the funds to complete the building. But Seniors Inc., the non-profit behind the private fund-raising effort, came through with several major donors to allow completion the $8 million facility.

The largest grant of $3.5 million came from the Ernest L. & Ruth W. Finley Foundation. In recognition of the donation, the wing was subsequently named in honor of the foundation's founder, Evert Person, former publisher of The Press Democrat.

Nearly everything on the first floor of the wing is now complete, including a fireplace and seating area near the entrance, several multi-use rooms on either side of a central corridor, a catering kitchen, and auditorium, which was scaled back from its original 250-seat size to stay within budget.

All that remains to be finished on the first floor is a small caf?under construction near the entrance.

The final phase, expected to move forward in 2013, will complete the upstairs library, computer and meeting rooms and the parking lot on the east side of the building. That phase is expected to cost $2.1 million.

While some seniors are clearly thrilled by the new modern structure, others have yet to embrace it. Some remain loyal to their aging Bennett Valley Senior Center and continue to attend knitting, bingo and exercise classes there.

"There are many people that love that center and they don't want to come here," Beggs said as a dozen ukulele players plinked out "Jingle Bell Rock" down the hall.

Some seniors said the new center feels "sterile" compared to the old one, which is located in an 80-year-old former schoolhouse and will remain open.

But overall, visitors Wednesday raved about their classy new digs.

"I think it's fantastic," said 69-year-old Maryjane Grotting after a vigorous round of ping pong.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or OnTwitter @citybeater)