Community Center, Senior Living Part Of New Plans For Former College Of St. Joseph
When the College of St Joseph closed in Rutland in 2019, there was talk of turning the campus into a business incubator and professional training center. That deal fell through, and now there are several new plans for the 118-acre campus that could serve vital niches in the community.
The red brick athletic center at the College of St. Joseph is on the left as you drive in. Inside the front lobby, there are tables and chairs where people can sit, grab a coffee and talk.
After the college closed last year, Rutland City began leasing this space and turned it into a community center.
The coronavirus forced the city to close the doors in March, but things are beginning to ramp back up.
Kim Peters, superintendent of Rutland City’s recreation department, manages it. She recently brought VPR on a tour, walking through the lobby into the vast college-sized gymnasium.
“We can fit a thousand fans in here," she said, gesturing from wall to wall. "Last year, the Rutland High School boys' and girls' varsity team used this gym because their gym had damage on the floor, so we hosted all the games last year.”
There are two full-size courts, and Peters says men’s and women’s basketball leagues were using them a lot before the pandemic hit.
“The other nice thing about this is we also have pickleball in here during the day, and our walkers," she said. “So you walk around the perimeter, and you go 12 times, that's a mile.”
In Rutland, many seniors liked to walk at the Diamond Run Mall, but when it closed last fall, Peters says this gym provided a safe and economical alternative.
She walked down a hall and pointed to a workout room, yoga, dance and meeting spaces. During the pandemic, several of these spaces became child care hubs for essential workers, which Peters says shows how flexible the facility can be.
Further down the hallway, she pointed out four locker rooms and two racquet ball courts.
“And these are great, because they don't just get used for racquetball," she said. "We used them for lacrosse as well as something called 'wallball.'”
Peters remembered one especially busy time, “I had lacrosse practice going on in here, wrestling practice on half of the gym, basketball practice on the other half. I had a police commission meeting down the hall. I mean, it was just booming."
Besides the building, Peters says there are ballfields out back and 20 acres of wooded trails.
To use the facility, the city charges a monthly membership of $10.
On the day of VPR's tour, 19-year-old Lucas Pencak and his younger brother Ben were lifting weights in the workout room. They became members last month.
“Ten dollars a month, I mean, that's a kickin' deal right there,” Lucas said. “You can’t beat that!”
The brothers added the repurposing of the college was "good for the community."
Back in Februrary – before COVID-19 struck – Kim Peters says they had 400 paying members, enough to convince city officials the athletic complex was worth purchasing. Voters will have the final say on whether they want to approve the $1.45 million bond necessary.
The actual sale price is $1.8 million, but a $350,000 federal grant is helping to defray the cost.
Dave Walstrom plans to vote yes. He frequently walks his dogs on the campus and was sad to see the college close.
“But the fact that there's a really nice gymnasium and recreation facility here already built, I think is an excellent opportunity for the city," he said. "And we've kind of been working on getting something like this since I moved here almost 20 years ago.”
But voters have balked at the cost. In 2011, for instance, city residents said no to a $3.9 million bond for a new gymnasium. And in 2005, a plan for an even costlier athletic facility involving several towns fizzled.
Rutland Mayor Dave Allaire has urged voters to approve the bond, calling it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Plus, he said it would mesh well with what another developer plans for the rest of the St. Joseph's campus.
Stuart Mills is managing partner for Heartland Communities of America, which develops and operates "faith-sponsored, senior care communities" that offer independent living, assisted living and memory care. The Florida-based company is in the process of purchasing the former college's remaining 98 acres.
“We're just in the earliest stages of design," Mills said. "It'll be about 175 apartments for seniors in their 80s, 90s and 100s."
Mills estimates his company will spend about $50 million on construction. Most of the project will be new, but he says they plan to incorporate one dormitory building and part of St. Joseph’s Hall, the central, white columned building which housed the college library.
“Certainly there's construction jobs that are numerous on a project of this size and scale,” Mills said. “But the more important part is the long-term job creation will probably employ 80 to 90 full-time people from the area.”
Donald Reuther is CEO of Community Health of Rutland, a federally qualified health care provider with six clinics that serves about 80% of the county’s primary care needs. He says according to hospital data, 40% of Rutland County residents are aged 65 and older, and there’s a significant shortage of geriatric medical care in the area.
“So there’s definitely a need for this type of senior community,” he said.
And Reuther says Community Health of Rutland hopes to become part of it. He says they’re well into negotiations with Heartland Communities to lease Tuttle Hall, a campus building which includes a large auditorium.
Moving some of their administrative services to the campus, Reuther said, would free up space in their clinics. He added that he and Mills have also discussed the creation of a new primary care and memory clinic at the site.
“With the demographics in Rutland and our aging population, to be able to have a memory clinic in Rutland that can serve the patients is a really exciting prospect,” Reuther said.
Heartland Communities has not yet begun the Act 250 process required for this project. But Stuart Mills says if all goes as planned, they hope to break ground next spring and open in the summer of 2022.
Back on the grassy field behind the athletic complex, Dave Walstrom said when he and his wife first heard about the proposed apartments for elders, they were intrigued.
“We thought, how wonderful to be at a senior center having kids running by, or be able to come out and watch a soccer game," he said. "I mean, having a senior center right next door to a recreation facility used by lots of children, just seems like a really great idea."
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