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Jim Kenyon: White River Junction senior facility is The Village without the people

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, June 22, 2019

At The Village at White River Junction, retired Dartmouth music professor Jon Appleton found many of the amenities he was looking for in a senior living community.

There’s a movie theater, a library, a fitness room and even a pub – all under one roof. The 80-year-old Appleton picked his apartment on the fourth floor because it’s across the hallway from the Village’s music room, which has a piano. He plays about 30 minutes a day.

But the Village is missing one crucial thing: people.

“I feel lonely here,” Appleton said.

Five months after opening in downtown White River Junction, the $27 million assisted living and memory care facility sits mostly empty.

Appleton, who moved in a month ago, is among a dozen or so residents. When I met up with Appleton on Thursday morning, only a couple of people were in the dining room. In the top-floor conservatory, which offers a bird’s-eye view of downtown, we sat for nearly an hour without seeing anyone else.

The staff, which Appleton describes as “wonderful,” seem to outnumber residents by a wide margin.

Since developers Brooke Ciardelli and Byron Hathorn announced plans for a five-story senior housing development on Gates Street, the project has evoked Field of Dreams: They can build it, but will seniors come?

Cost is the biggest obstacle. Rents range from $8,500 to $10,500 a month.

While competitive with some of its upscale counterparts in the Upper Valley, such as Harvest Hill in Lebanon, the Village is still roughly double the median cost for private assisted living facilities in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Village’s developers and management say the slow start is nothing to worry about. “We have a little bit to make up, but it’s manageable,” said director Jodi Egger, who has worked in the assisted living field nationally for 15 years.

Egger, who is from Tampa, Fla., just recently took over the Village’s day-to-day operations. Her predecessor, Sandy Conrad, of Royalton, lasted only a short time. When contacted by the Valley News last week, neither Conrad nor Des Moines, Iowa-based Life Care Services, which manages the Village, would talk about the reasons for her departure.

Egger told me that she expects the Village to be up to about 20 residents by early July. It also has some furnished apartments available for short-term rental to people who want to escape Florida for a few months.

The Village probably didn’t do itself any favors opening in January. Getting folks to pick up stakes in midwinter is a tough sell. Originally, the Village was scheduled to open in September 2018, but construction delays, among other things, got in the way.

In March — two months after opening — Ciardelli and Hathorn asked the Hartford Board of Abatement for a break in its property tax bill of nearly $370,000. The developers said they “ran of short cash” due to the construction delays.

The town approved a $50,000 abatement. Last week, the Valley News reported the Village was current on property tax payments. The developers also have paid back roughly $280,000 they had used of a Vermont Community Development grant.

That’s a good sign.

To get a better idea of the national picture, I called the National Center for Assisted Living, a nonprofit trade organization in Washington.

Some facilities have waiting lists before they open their doors, but it’s not unusual for places to take “a bit longer” to fill up, said Rachel Reeves, the organization’s spokeswoman. “It really depends on the market.”

The Village recognizes that its market must be “much larger” than just seniors already living in the Upper Valley, Egger told me. A “secondary market” are seniors who have relatives, usually children, in the Upper Valley that they want to move closer to.

The Village, which offers everything from an outdoor dog park with artificial turf on a fourth-floor terrace to on-site nurses around the clock, would seem to have demographics working in its favor.

“The potential market is huge,” The New York Times wrote in 2018 about high-end facilities that resemble five-star hotels. “By some industry estimates, 20% of baby boomers, or about 15 million people, have saved enough to afford private continuing care, with many expected to demand a very high standard of living.”

After spending time with Appleton and listening to him play the piano, I find myself rooting for the Village.

I don’t expect it will ever have much economic diversity, but it affords residents who have the means to be part of the larger downtown community.

They can walk next door to the Northern Stage performing arts theater. The Briggs Opera House, restaurants and shops are around the corner. Last week, Appleton took a tai chi class at a downtown studio.

It’s not only what folks such as Appleton can get out of living in White River Junction. It’s the life experiences they bring to the town.

Appleton is a musician and composer. (He didn’t tell me this, but he has produced about two dozen CDs.) He taught at Dartmouth for more than 40 years, and he was among the few tenured faculty not afraid to criticize the college for its increasingly elitist bent.

Appleton lived in Hartford for 30 years before leaving the Upper Valley. He spent the last five years in Hawaii. Following a stroke that slowed his speech (he says it’s also affected his piano playing, but I’m not sure who could tell), Appleton wanted to return to the Upper Valley to be closer to his children and grandchildren who live in New York.

“I wanted to be in White River Junction because I can walk to things and see friends,” he told me.

All the amenities his new home has to offer — and its downtown location — are nice.

But as Appleton reminded me, it still takes people to make a village.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Correction

Retired Dartmouth College music professor Jon Appleton is 80.  An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect age.