A Pastor’s Vision and Senior Housing Development

Pastor David Olson of the First Lutheran Church in Sandpoint is someone with vision. Here in a Finance and Commerce article by Brian Johnson, he talks about his and his congregation’s foray into senior housing development:

David Olson will never forget his first pastoral visit to a nursing home.

‘I was greeted with the words, ‘Pastor, I am being held against my will and I need your help to escape,” recalled Olson, a Lutheran minister with Minnesota connections who now has a congregation in Idaho.

‘That is the nightmare of senior care for people: that they will end up essentially being housed against their will. ‘

Olson’s experience was part of the inspiration for a senior housing project that’s about to break ground in Sandpoint, Idaho.

His congregation, First Lutheran Church at Sandpoint, is developing the $14 million, 87-unit facility with help from Ecumen, a Shoreview-based nonprofit that manages and develops senior housing.

When it’s completed next year, the project will offer 60 units of ‘catered living’ for seniors and 27 units of ‘memory care and enhanced assisted living’ in a structure that will be physically attached to the church and spiritually attached to the greater community.

Olson said the goal is to create senior housing that ‘avoids being an elder ghetto and provides positive, stimulating environments in which people will choose to live, as opposed to consenting to being placed there. ‘

Ecumen, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), will manage the Idaho facility after it opens.

The Shoreview firm believes the project could become a model for other churches that have land for development. It sees senior housing projects developed with faith communities as a national ‘growth area. ‘

‘We are getting calls all the time from would-be clients who want to talk with us,’ noted Steve Ordahl, Ecumen’s senior vice president of business development services.

Ecumen is counting on a recently announced partnership with two other major senior housing players – St. Louis Park-based general contractor Adolfson & Peterson and St. Paul-based design firm Pope Associates – to help those projects move forward.

Other church-connected senior housing projects are popping up closer to home.

In Minneapolis, for example, Spirit of the Lakes Church plans to create 41 units of senior housing on church-owned property at 1238 E. Lake St. Its development partner is Powderhorn Residents Group.

Hennepin County recently approved a $37,150 grant for the project, which could begin this fall.

And in Prior Lake, Presbyterian Homes is partnering with Shepherd of the Lake Church to create 156 units of senior housing (82 independent living, 56 assisted living, and 18 memory care) on the church’s 80-acre campus.

Adolfson & Peterson and Pope Associates are part of that project team, as well. It’s nearing completion after a year of construction, and the first residents are expected to move in by mid-July.

The campus includes short-stay apartments for homeless teenagers, and a ‘town center’ with a restaurant, a convenience store, a gift shop, a book store, barber and beauty shops, exercise and dining areas, and a 120-seat theater.

Future phases will bring an 80-bed skilled nursing home and 45 apartments for people 55 and older. The nursing home will be attached to the church, and the apartments will be in a series of five unattached brownstone buildings.

Construction will start next spring on a YMCA, also attached to the church.

Kermit Mahlum is the chief operating office for the Prior Lake development, known as Shepherds Path.

During his 10 years of planning the project, Mahlum spoke with other large churches in the metro area.

‘I believe this is going to be the next wave of church facilities, where they do campus settings,’ he said. ‘We are hopefully on the leading edge. There are two or three other campuses like this around the Twin Cities, but this is the first we are aware of where the senior facility and a YMCA are both attached to the church. ‘

Eric Schubert, Ecumen’s director of communications, said the senior housing industry is ‘just touching the cuff’ of innovative development, including projects that link 55-and-older housing with college campuses.

‘It’s a new way of looking at senior housing,’ Schubert said. ‘It really fits in with larger community development, as communities look to use space well and connect resources rather than just isolate seniors on the fringe of town. ‘

Olson said the faith community has the resources and knowledge to become a leader in senior housing development. The Lutheran church, for example, has been involved in senior care for more than 100 years, he noted.

First Lutheran in Sandpoint sowed the seeds for its project back in 1960, when the church purchased its current 6-acre site. At the time, the site was on the outskirts of town, but it’s now in the center of activity.

As Sandpoint became a hot spot for retirees, developers pressured the church to sell its 4 acres or so of developable land.

Rather than sell to a third party, Olson and the congregation opted to do their own development. He said there’s sufficient collateral in the land and in the existing church building to do the project without raising additional funds from the congregation.

Residents in the new development won’t have to be members of First Lutheran or any other church, Olson emphasized.

But he does see the project as an opportunity for the church to extend its ministry.

‘We view it as a ministry and an extension of the congregation, offering not only housing, but a Christ-centered community open to all, caring for the spiritual needs of our residents as well as physical and emotional needs.

‘We feel that for many of the residents, that is a central ingredient in terms of what they look for in quality of life. ‘