WILLSBORO - A 62-bed assisted living facility for seniors, housed in the historic old Willsboro school, has been approved and funded, and may be a reality by 2012.
Eli Schwartzberg, 30, a Saranac Lake native and owner of Stone Brook Properties LLC, closed on the building in November 2008, seven years after the school was shut down. He has already replaced the roof and has all the approvals he needs from the town board and planning board, and says he hopes to start the renovation in January or February of next year. He estimates the work will take about 11 months.
Schwartzberg said the community will be great for seniors who want to maintain independent lifestyles but need help with some things. Maybe they have arthritis, and need help bathing or buttoning a shirt; maybe they can't drive anymore and have trouble getting to the store to buy food, but can do everything else independently, so they could live there and get three meals a day.
Eli Schwartzberg stands in front of the old Willsboro school, next to the sign advertising the assisted senior living community he is developing. He plans to put a paved traffic circle in near where he is standing to facilitate access to the main entrance behind him.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)
"We are giving seniors the few tools that they need to maintain their independence, stay healthy, and lead a productive and active life," Schwartzberg said.
Schwartzberg grew up in Saranac Lake and went to Petrova School, then moved to Lake Placid when he was 13 and graduated from Northwood School. His father, Josh Schwartzberg, was a partner in Medical Associates of Saranac Lake for 20 years, and now has his own offices in Lake Placid and Willsboro.
Schwartzberg received a bachelor's degree from Cornell University in the hotel/restaurant School of Hospitality, then went to the University of Oxford in England, where he received a master's in business administration from their College of Brassenose. He moved back to the area knowing he wanted to develop in the Adirondacks, contrasting his story with many of his friends who went to good schools and now live in New York City and work on Wall Street.
"A lot of the young people are leaving these days. ... This is what I'm excited about, doing a project in the Adirondacks, because this is where I'm from," Schwartzberg said.
"We're very excited to be working with Eli," said Michael Conway, executive director of the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation. "He's a young, talented local developer who's brought his knowledge and skills back to the Adirondacks."
AEDC has been working with Schwartzberg on the project for a number of months, Conway said, providing technical assistance and guidance on his work toward financial approval.
"This type of project is very complex," Conway said. "It requires multiple sources of funding. The upside is, it has tremendous, significant community impact. We think it's going to be great for Willsboro. It'll help revitalize the downtown corridor."
Conway said AEDC has been helping him "interface with multiple banks and funding sources," and also providing Schwartzberg with a small pre-development loan to help him pay for the preliminary studies to build his business plan.
Conway said the studies Schwartzberg commissioned indicated a "growing demand for facilities of this nature, and we feel this fills a void that exists in the market."
Part of the parking area in front of the building as you drive up would remain parking. An outdoor cafe with umbrellas over the tables to provide shade would be put in the back. A paved half-circle would be put in front of the building, in front of the main entrance where the flagpole is now, to allow easier access.
The resident rooms would go in the big-windowed old classrooms, 80 percent of which would face the Boquet River just across the street. The drop ceilings would be removed, making the ceilings 14 feet high, and Schwartzberg said he plans to restore as much of the original hardwood as possible.
"It's going to be a really interesting place to live," Schwartzberg said. "It's going to have a lot of character," which he contrasted favorably with the more drab, antiseptic feel of some other similar facilities with more modern construction. The school was built in 1927, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another example of this character is a painted wall near a staircase, containing the names and expected 12th-grade graduation dates of kindergarten classes that entered the school. Schwartzberg said he plans to keep this.
The old gym will become the "core of the community," according to Schwartzberg. Most of the gym area will be converted into a dining hall, with the kitchen nearby. Part of it will be a living room area with a fireplace. The stage will be removed, replaced with a hair salon and a community store. The balconies around the gym wall will become a hobby/craft area, with work benches, book shelves and computer nooks.
There would also be laundry and housekeeping rooms, a place of worship, a movie theater, an ice cream parlor and a rehabilitation room, with exercise machines to meet the needs of seniors - for people with broken hips, for instance.
Schwartzberg said the center will be a "socially responsible, community-supported project," geared toward moderate-income seniors. He said he expects it to have a positive economic impact on Willsboro's community, drawing people to the downtown hamlet again by putting the old school to use. The families of the 62 seniors living there will need places to shop and stay when they come visit. He also said he expects it to create about 30 full-time jobs when it is done, not including off-site medical staff, which could grow in response to the center, or the construction jobs during the renovation.
Schwartzberg said he would hire a professional management company to operate the community. He has a loan, 90 percent guaranteed by the federal Department of Agriculture, to fund the $6 million project.
"Seniors who have lived in the Adirondacks their entire life should not have to move out of the area as soon as they need help with simple living activities," Schwartzberg said. "This community will allow Adirondack seniors to stay 'at home' in the Adirondack Park."