Life Soars at St. John’s New CCRC in Albert Lea, Minnesota

Residents will have eagle eyes watching over them when they move into one of the new households at Fountain Lake in Albert Lea, MN – especially if it’s nesting season.

“We didn’t know a bald eagle’s nest was on the property until about a year after we purchased it,” says Scot Spates, Administrator at St. John’s Lutheran Community.

Having acquired 50 acres of prime lakefront property, St. John’s was set to begin the $38 million development of a new CCRC including skilled nursing, assisted and independent living, a town center, and in another year or two, private homes for renters and owners … but could the nest impact the project?

Though no longer listed as endangered or threatened, bald eagles are still protected under federal law. Spates immediately called the Minnesota Division of Fish and Wildlife. The nest itself is protected, he learned, prohibiting the tree’s removal and construction within 60 feet. Original plans put the three-story nursing home just 55 feet from the nest.

“So we took all the buildings, picked them up and moved them about eight or 10 feet to the east to protect the nest, which was kind of cool,” says Spates.

St. John’s broke ground in 2015, constructing first the buildings that are farthest from the nest, saving the closest, the nursing home, for last. The independent and assisted living buildings opened in 2016. Still under construction are the nursing home and town center.

When the nursing home opens this summer, residents will have a front row seat for the annual show of fledglings from the north side decks on the second and third floor. The third floor balcony offers practically a bird’s eye view into the nest about 80 feet away, says Spates.

Non-nursing home residents aren’t shortchanged. “Last year there were two chicks; their favorite hangout was on the roof of the independent living building. I saw them pretty much every day,” he says.

The eagles have returned to the nest and raised chicks every year since the project started. “They got so used to construction and people, we’re not worried they will leave and never come back,” adds Spates.

Sweet deal hatched from sour economy

St. John’s acquired the property for a song, thanks to an astute board member and the organization’s reputation in the community.

The site was formerly a golf course that a developer bought with the intent of building upscale housing. But the project stalled when the economy tanked in 2008. The bank foreclosed and took possession of the 100-acre tract.

A retired banker on St. John’s board of directors knew banks don’t like to hold property and thought the organization might negotiate an equitable deal, so they offered to buy 51 acres. The bank obliged.

“The price was $7,200 per acre – crazy low,” says Spates. In comparison, a third-acre residential lot in Albert Lea would run about $30,000, he adds.

There were no water or sewer at the site, so St. John’s reached an agreement with the City of Albert Lea to extend city lines to the property. St. John’s will pay for the extension through tax increment financing (TIF). Under the agreement, up to 26 years of taxes that St. John’s would pay the city will instead pay for extending the water and sewer lines to the property, including oversizing the lines to provide for future development in the area.

“We pay our tax bill and they send us the money back after taking out about five percent for administrative fees,” says Spates. The returned money is paid toward the $1.9 million sewer and water lines’ assessed costs plus interest.

City officials believe the line extensions will encourage future development and grow the town’s tax base. Spates thinks St. John’s 53-year history of service to the community and support by many local congregations also greased negotiations.

A cozy nest for Mom and Dad

Culture change with person-centered care has shaped St. John’s service to elders since about 2002 and will have an even deeper footprint in the new assisted living and nursing home households on Fountain Lake.

The old nursing home, licensed for 140 beds, is broken into neighborhoods, each with about 22 residents. Life will be a little cozier at lakeside: the new nursing and assisted living homes, licensed for 84 and 32 residents respectively, will be divided into households of 14 served by permanently assigned, cross-trained staff.

“We’ve had permanent assignments for 15 years,” says Spates. “One of the things we hear most often from residents and their family members is, we want Mom or Dad to have the same staff. There is a connection between residents and that staff person; families see that as a huge value as to how we operate.”

Each household has a kitchen, dining room, living room, laundry room, and all private rooms with bath for residents, including a few suites for married couples. A room on each floor of the nursing home accommodates bariatric residents.

Residents’ rooms in assisted living have small kitchens equipped with a microwave, compact refrigerator, and cabinets. Household kitchens in both nursing and assisted living will be open 24 hours with staff trained to prepare food on demand. Residents who are able may use the household kitchen to prepare their own snacks. “People who sleep in and get up wanting, for instance, two eggs over easy or 12 pieces of bacon can get it no matter what time of day,” says Spates.

New campus enables upgrade at old nursing home

Half the residents in the current nursing home will transfer to the new one when it opens and the second floor will be closed, creating a smaller environment and more dining options for those who choose to stay, says Spates.

There are no kitchens on the second floor; food is transported up to neighborhood dining rooms on the second floor from the kitchen below.

“That means lunch gets sent up at 11:15, so we have open dining from 11:15 until 12 noon. But if you walk in at 12:15 to get lunch you can’t because it’s already been moved back down to kitchen,” says Spates.

With the second floor closed, residents will live in the three remaining neighborhoods on the first floor that are adjacent to the kitchen. “People will be able to come in at any time of the day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and order off a menu. By downsizing we’re able to implement more of those culture change concepts,” he explains.

A town center where the whole community can flock

Meanwhile, residents at the Fountain Lake site can feed their physical, spiritual, and social needs at the town center encircled by the nursing home, assisted living building, and independent living apartments.

They might join friends for a bit of java and jive at the coffee shop café; have a reunion with up to 35 relatives in the family room; upgrade their hairdo at the beauty and barber shop; care for their ailing body in the therapy room; buff up at the fitness center; learn more about the nesting habits of eagles in the library; worship in the chapel; and get help with their iPhones from a technician stationed at the tech desk.

There is internet access throughout the campus but if residents don’t have their own computer they can use the ones provided in the tech center, says Spates.

When residents tire of indoor activities, they can stretch their legs on any of several walking trails on the property. Gravel foundations have been laid and will soon be covered by asphalt so wheelchairs can follow the trails along the lake and among the trees.

Elders in assisted living can move unimpeded inside their “u” shaped building. A corridor on the first and second floor connects the tips of the two wings of the building that form the top of the u, creating a continuous, circular path within the home. Thus, people with memory issues who tend to wander don’t run into dead ends and become frustrated, says Spates. The link also creates an enclosed courtyard, prohibiting memory-care residents from wandering offsite.

An underground corridor connects all four buildings of the community, enabling residents and staff to move about without institutional clutter and noise in their living space. Doubling as a tornado shelter, the corridor allows food to be transported underground from the main kitchen to elevators that carry it to satellite kitchens throughout the campus. Nursing and incontinent supplies can be distributed in similar fashion out of sight of residents and visitors. Garbage and recycling goes down a chute into the underground corridors and out to a loading dock and into dumpsters.

“This whole design is so we’re not plugging up the corridors with food carts and big barrels of garbage,” says Spates.

Anything less would be for the birds.

Thank you to Scot Spates for sharing the St. Johns story.

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