In Rutland, Rumors And Questions Cloud Excitement For Senior Care Developent
In Rutland, a Florida developer's plans to build a $63 million senior living complex on the campus of the former college of St Joseph could be a boon to the local community and many are excited about it.
But rumors about Act 250, questions about transparency and a failed plan to include the Rutland Free Library in the project have raised concerns.
After the College of St Joseph closed in Rutland in 2019, many wondered what would become of the 117-acre campus. It’s a problem several communities in Vermont have grappled with in recent years.
The City of Rutland bought a 20-acre parcel last year that included the college athletic center, gymnasium and playing fields, along with nearby wooded trails. It’s become a popular recreation hub.
Then last September, real estate developer Stuart Mills announced he planned to purchase the remaining 98 acres and create a senior living community. At the time, he described it as a $50 million project that would create 175 independent living, assisted living and memory care apartments.
“It’s gotten even bigger,” Mills said last week. “Two-hundred-four units, and right now the total cost of the project is around $63 million.”
Mills said he’s been in the business of developing senior care centers for 30 years. A brochure produced by Heartland Communities of America, which lists Mills as a managing member, names projects developed in five states. “I've done 19 of these,” Mills said. "I have 12 in different stages of development, of breaking ground; one in 60 days.”
The proposed senior living community in Rutland has generated a lot of excitement because of its potential economic impact. Mills estimates it would generate about 100 full-time jobs; construction would be handled locally and it would repurpose a now vacant campus.
“It’s ripe for development,” Lyle Jepson said of the property.
Jepson is executive director of the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region.
He said not only is the campus centrally located, but it’s in a federally designated "opportunity zone," which provides added tax incentives for developers like Mills.
“I have seen the market study that they have put together and at least their study suggests there is a need for senior care, living in our county,” Jepson said.
But Jepson says when he and his staff tried to learn more about Mills, who has used various company names for his development work, they haven’t been able to find much.
“He [Mills] indicated that they took down their website because it sounded like they were getting too many inquiries or too much business," Jepson said. "But like anyone else, you can go on the internet and look for them and I cannot find a development that they have done under that name.”
Jepson said he and many others in town have found that troubling. “The first thing you do is you look for proven projects.”
Mills admitted there’s not much to find about his work on the web.
“Yeah … We try to keep a low profile because of the way we do our business,” he said.
Something that does come up in an internet search are several lawsuits involving Mills. One, from May of last year, was for a breach of contract with Domani Capital Group LLC. According to court documents, Mills had not paid back loans totaling $125,000.
Another suit from 2011 involves a breach of agreement with Citicorp Municipal Mortgage.
Mills brushed those and other suits aside and said in his line of work, legal disputes are common. The $125,000 loan, he said, has been repaid.
When asked if people in the Rutland area should be concerned about the fact that information on his business dealings was hard to find online while lawsuits were not, he said, “That’s up to them.”
Another issue that’s raised eyebrows has to do with the Rutland Free Library. In December, library trustees announced they had been working with Mills on a deal to purchase the former college library and relocate to the campus.
Barry Cohen, Rutland Free Library’s treasurer, said the college library was more modern and accessible and would cost about $300,000 less to buy than the $1.5 million trustees had budgeted for renovating their current downtown location – a building that dates to the 1850s and is owned by the city.
“It was a eureka moment,” Cohen gushed. “It was greater than the sum of the parts. Having the rec center and the library and the retirement community all together makes perfect sense. It was very exciting.”
Until it wasn’t.
A vocal group of critics argued the public should have had more input and that moving the beloved library would gut the downtown. Fierce debate ensued.
Despite the controversy, Cohen said he thought the relocation plan with Mills was moving ahead, until the library was abruptly informed earlier this month that they'd been dropped from the deal.
The reason: Act 250, the state’s land use and development law.
“I’d been negotiating with Stu Mills for many months and we were right at the finish line,” Cohen explained. “But he’s working on his Act 250 plans and he was informed by his attorney that our participation in the deal was going to delay him maybe by two years, maybe by a quarter of a million dollars and he’d be better off without us.”
Stuart Mills confirmed this and said even though he wanted the library included, he couldn't make the numbers work if it was.
Act 250 is meant to ensure developers like Mills comply with Vermont's landscape and community needs.
Annette Smith, Barry Cohen and others in Rutland wondered why the permit process would be such a big deal for Mills, considering he wanted to repurpose property that had already been developed, was targeting a federally designated "opportunity zone" and included a project many say the region would benefit from.
Smith lives in Danby and heads Vermonters for a Clean Environment. She's made a name for herself as an outspoken activist and she knows Act 250 well.
Smith said she likes the Rutland Free Library and had been following its plans to relocate. She attended several Zoom informational meetings and was frustrated by what she considered the lack of public involement in the process. Some of her concerns were made public in a group letter to the editor she signed.
Smith said at some point, rumors began spreading that she was some kind of paid trouble-maker hired to stir up Act 250 controversy over the deal.
"We try to keep a low profile because of the way we do our business," - Stuart Mills, developer
“This Act 250 business? That’s somebody’s fantasy,” Smith said. “I have never talked to anybody about Act 250, about this at all."
In fact, she says Stuart Mills called her on March 9.
"He left a very pleasant message that he’d like to talk to me about the library project … and among other things, share an idea he had for repurposing the existing library,” she said.
When asked why Mills would be calling her, Smith said she had no idea: “I don’t even live in Rutland. I mean, to me, there’s something weird about it.”
She and Mills never ended up speaking because the library deal fell through the next day.
Jim Goss, Mills' attorney, wouldn't comment for this story.
Stuart Mills said the libary deal is in the past and he's over it. He said his focus is on building his planned senior living community.
"What we know is: there's an incredible need to serve seniors, so we're going to stay true to it and get it done, unless we're driven away by the attitude of the people in the area," Mills said.
Heritage Family Credit Union, which owns the former college campus, would not say how much they're selling the property for. Mills would only say it was several million dollars and that he has the finances to close. Both sides expect that to occur sometime in May.
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