WILLSBORO - The halls of the former Willsboro Central School used to bustle with the sounds of children moving from classroom to classroom. Now those same rooms and hallways will be filled with the voices of the young at heart.
The old community school in this small Essex County town sat abandoned for several years after it was closed 12 years ago, but it has been reborn as an assisted living center for senior citizens. A grand opening for the Champlain Valley Senior Community was held last month.
Its owner and developer, Saranac Lake native Eli Schwartzberg, says the $6 million project will help fill a growing senior housing void in the region.
The former Willsboro Central School, which was built in 1927 and closed in 2001, has been converted to the Champlain Valley Senior Community, a 63-bed assisted living facility for seniors that opened last month.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"It's no secret that there's a very large aging demographic in the North Country, and a lot of people have to leave the area to get the services they need," Schwartzberg said during a recent tour. "I saw an issue with that. Why should people who have lived here all their life, gone to school here, and paid taxes here need to leave here if they need someone to manage their medication, drive them to the doctor or provide them with three balanced meals? People in the Adirondacks should be able to have their cake and eat it, too."
Ice cream, not cake, may have been a better choice of words for Schwartzberg, as the facility boasts a long list of amenities, includes a combination cafe-ice cream parlor-movie theater, plus a beauty salon and a chapel. Its gymnasium has been converted to a dining hall with a stage for concerts and shows.
The 63-bed facility also has a secure dementia wing for seniors who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. There's also an on-site doctor's office, and 21 of its beds can be converted to nursing home-level care.
"It's providing residents in the North Country a place where they can be safe and secure, and with a social environment to live out their golden years," Schwartzberg said.
Constructed in 1927, the three-story, red-brick building overlooks the Boquet River. It has an addition that was built in 1952. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building served as Willsboro's school for more than 70 years until it closed in 2001.
"They built a new school, and they needed a use for this building," Schwartzberg said. "I came along and just saw a diamond in the rough. There was a lot of peeling paint, leaking roofs and deterioration, but the structure of the building was really solid."
Schwartzberg bought the property in 2008. A native of Saranac Lake, the 33-year-old is a 1999 graduate of Northwood School in Lake Placid. He has a bachelor's degree in hotel administration from Cornell University's School of Hospitality and a master's in business administration from Oxford University in England. For six years, he worked in the Miami area for developers who built large townhouse communities before returning home to start his own real estate development firm, The Stonebrook Company, based in Lake Placid.
"I worked very hard to learn as quickly as possible, get the right education and bring that back to the North Country, where I could make a difference in people's lives," Schwartzberg said.
Before he bought the old school, Schwartzberg said he spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he could do with it. Assisted living seemed like a good fit for the layout of the 42,000-square-foot building, he said.
"The hallways are 10 feet wide, so two people with walkers can easily pass each other," Schwartzberg said. "The gymnasium - you need a dining room, living room and social area - so that created a really nice central place for people to have three meals a day. The classrooms were 22 feet deep with 12-foot-high ceilings and large windows. The rooms were very easy to divide up into assisted-living suites."
The renovations began in earnest in June 2012. Contractors removed asbestos from the old school and its addition, stripped the flooring and took out old windows and doors, essentially gutting the building.
Not everything was removed, however. The building is filled with countless reminders of its school days. Student murals were preserved, including one listing the names of every student in the school when it closed. The benches from the school's basketball court have been converted to seats in the center's chapel. A section of bleachers from the gym, and its scoreboard, were also saved, and some old classroom doors were left in place in the hallways.
"If someone went to school here, they're going to come and say, 'This is Mrs. Smith's room, and she taught social studies,'" Schwartzberg said. "All this stuff, this was purposely left. This is what makes it history."
Schwartzberg said the project was primarily financed by private money, including a U.S. Department of Agriculture-backed loan from a private lender. He also received some public funding in the form of a $375,000 federal Community Development Block Grant.
Assisted living is for seniors who need help with everyday tasks like bathing, dressing and taking medications. It's more intensive than independent living centers like Saranac Village at Will Rogers in Saranac Lake, but less intensive than a nursing home.
"We have individual service plans for every resident," Schwartzberg said. "We have a case manager on staff who communicates with their doctors, makes sure they're healthy and getting the medications they need."
Schwartzberg said the Champlain Valley Senior Community is unique because it's the only state-licensed enhanced assisted living center in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. The "enhanced" designation means it also offers nursing-home-level care for up to 21 residents.
"If someone comes in here on assisted living and they need additional things like oxygen or additional help that would normally require a nursing home level, we don't just have to discharge them," he said. "They can stay here with their friends and their caregivers. They can age in place."
The Willsboro facility is also one of only two assisted living centers in the area with a dementia unit, or a "secure memory wing," as Schwartzberg called it.
"A lot of people want to take care of their loved ones at home, but (their memory loss) gets to a point where it starts to affect your relationship with your mother or father," he said. "What we do is provide a secure environment and aides full-time to help them get dressed, shower, bathe - all that kind of thing. What it does is allows the family members to come in for visits and enjoy that time instead of having to be a 24-7 caregiver and hurt the relationship that the family members have."
The national average cost for assisted living was roughly $3,500 a month in 2012, according to a survey conducted by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Schwartzberg said the Champlain Valley Senior Community's rooms run from $2,500 to $3,400 a month, rates he says are affordable for a retired senior living on a pension.
"Think about it this way," Schwartzberg said. "You don't have to pay property taxes; you don't have to pay for plowing; you don't have to pay for any food. Your electricity, your cable, your TV, your Internet - everything is included. And you have aides, which, if you were living at home, you'd have to pay private caregivers to come in. The economies of scale just blow anything you'd be paying at home out of the water."
Unlike nursing homes, where the expenses of most residents are often covered by federal programs like Medicaid, the Champlain Valley Senior Community's residents will primarily be private payers, Schwartzberg said.
As of late June, deposits had been placed for 16, or roughly 25 percent, of the center's rooms, which Schwartzberg said is better than his market studies projected for its opening. Ten residents had moved in as of this week.
The facility has 30 full-time employees, including many from Willsboro, Plattsburgh and Jay. Schwartzberg is currently transitioning to a company that will oversee daily operations, Albany-based ICC Management and Consulting.
The big picture
Schwartzberg isn't the only one who believes there's a need for more assisted living facilities in the North Country. Last year, Adirondack Health officials announced plans to partner with other organizations to add assisted living and senior housing facilities on the Uihlein Living Center nursing home campus in Lake Placid. The change comes as Adirondack Health cuts the number of nursing home beds at Uihlein from 120 to 60, largely because of shortfalls in Medicaid reimbursement.
Adirondack Health CEO Chandler Ralph told the Enterprise last year that a focus group of 20 agencies that provide services to seniors in the Tri-Lakes region identified assisted living and independent or senior housing as services that were needed in the area. In addition to the new Willsboro facility, the only other assisted living centers in the area are The Neighborhood House in Keene Valley, Pine Harbour in Plattsburgh and Adirondack Manor, which has centers in Malone, Peru and Ticonderoga.
Adirondack Health is still pursuing assisted living and senior housing options, spokesman Joe Riccio said last week.
The idea, he said, is to provide a place for seniors to live "after you're released from the hospital but not quite ready to go home or need a different level of living other than independent.
"That's the vision," Riccio said. "Where that's exactly going to land, we're still talking about that with our potential partners."
Staying close to home and family is important for the area's seniors, said Jennifer Grisi, who directs the Saranac Lake Adult Center, which provides meals, excercise, activities and other day services to senior citizens. The Champlain Valley Senior Community might be an option, although it's not as close to home as some might like, she said.
"Many people are looking to age in place, and that doesn't necessarily mean in the home that they've raised their family in, but it might mean a place like one of the high-rises (DeChantal or Lake Flower Apartments in Saranac Lake) or Will Rogers," Grisi said. "Even though they're classified as independent, by hiring caregivers they're able to extend their time, pretty much being very independent."
The high cost of nursing home care, and the shortfall in reimbursement for it, is what has sparked a push for more independent and assisted living, said Carmen Carpentier, executive director of Lake Forest Senior Living Community, an independent living center in Plattsburgh. A large population of baby boomers who want to "age in place" is also pushing the change, she said.
"The real pop is going to be in five to eight years, when the boomers will have aged enough to want the retirement communities," Carpentier said. "The concern is, who is going to take care of them, because the generations following them are much smaller. That's part of what's driving the industry to say, 'Let's keep them in their homes. Let's keep them in a retirement community where they're supported.'"
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.