Unlike anything in Utah, this huge new retirement community offers a ‘life plan’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Summit Vista under construction, Wednesday Sept. 5, 2018. Summit Vista, being built on a 105-acre parcel in Taylorsville, is Utah's first 'life plan community,' a highly social form of retirement apartment dwelling combined with a full spectrum of the types of care senior might need as they age.

Taylorsville • Bill and Pat Hardesty will soon pledge their remaining years to a new “life plan” at a place called Summit Vista.

Just returned to their West Valley City home from a workout, 66-year-old Pat Hardesty said she still has loads to sort and pack as they downsize for the move. Husband Bill, 61, does, too, and pondered last week as to which friends might like some of his favorite books as gifts.

The couple has a two-bedroom apartment reserved at what’s planned as a massive senior living campus, now emerging on a rare 105-acre piece of undeveloped ground in southwest Taylorsville.

A hundred or more Wasatch Front seniors are poised to make the same jump starting in October, filling in the initial two buildings of Utah’s first full continuing-care retirement community. If Summit Vista reaches complete build out, the 1,800-unit campus would place among the biggest senior projects of any kind in the state.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pat Hardesty, 66, and husband Bill, 61, of West Valley City are getting ready to move into Summit Vista, a first-of-its-kind "life plan" community in Taylorsville. They've been sorting and packing to get ready and are drawn to the massive development's model of continuing care as they age.

And yes, Bill and Pat are excited to get into their customized, 1,100-square-foot apartment so they can start stocking the specialty ordered pantry and take in their fifth-floor balcony view of downtown Salt Lake City. But they are just as drawn to the idea of continuing care at Summit Vista and a collaboration it has with Intermountain Healthcare to get primary medical services on campus.

“If Pat had to go into longterm care,” Bill Hardesty said, “it’d be nice to have her close versus having her across the valley or whatever, where I could only visit her twice a week because of the distance.”

The idea behind building life plan or continuing-care retirement communities is, in a way, to go big — build facilities that can cater to the spectrum of lifestyles and challenges seniors go through as they age, be it independent living, assisted care, skilled nursing, memory care, longterm care or rehabilitation.

Then, the thinking goes, make living services high-quality and affordable and spread them over residential campuses with an appealing selection of dining and recreational options.

Summit Vista CEO and Executive Director Mark Erickson, whose father John C. Erickson helped build continuing care for seniors into a financial empire starting in 1983, puts the idea this way: "We want this to be a home for life.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Summit Vista CEO and executive director, Mark Erickson outside the senior residential community in Taylorsville. Mark's father, John C. Erickson, built a national network of similar continuing-care retirement communities before losing it all in a huge bankruptcy in 2009. “It’s a very successful model, very popular,” the younger Erickson said. “It’s just very interesting that Utah doesn’t have one of these.”

The Erickson family’s early ties to the Summit Vista project reach back at least a decade, when Erickson Sr. first scouted the Taylorsville site as part of a debt-fueled nationwide expansion — plans that collapsed in a spectacular 2009 bankruptcy driven by the Great Recession.

Though still revered for his vision by key players in the Summit Vista deal, Erickson Sr. has no direct role in the project. The son, 45, who grew up in their retirement community business in Baltimore, said he’s learned sobering lessons from the crisis that ultimately sidelined his dad.

Now, backed by some of Utah’s most influential real-estate investors — including developer-philanthropist Kem Gardner and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney — and with eager blessing from the city of Taylorsville, Summit Vista is designed and permitted for up to 15 buildings and three to four swanky clubhouses on the land northeast of the intersection of 6200 South and Bangerter Highway.

‘The very best possible fit'

Red Pine Ridge, Summit Vista’s inaugural 114-apartment complex, will open in a matter of weeks, right after the adjoining 62,000 square-foot clubhouse with its array of amenities — restaurants, swimming pool, fitness and beauty spas, hobby and meeting rooms — all carefully dialed in to senior tastes.

A second residential building, Maple Point, broke ground in May. Plans cleared at City Hall call for clusters of three to four 100-unit housing complexes around each clubhouse as the phases spread over green spaces webbed with gentle paths and climate-controlled skywalks.

Delighted dignitaries will snip the first opening ribbons in early October.

Assuming customers like the Hardestys keep coming, developers and crews from Okland Construction plan to open a new residential complex about every seven to nine months, Erickson said. That pace could see the project completed in five to 10 years.

The community could eventually employ up to 1,000 people, making it one of the largest businesses to open in Taylorsville in its 22-year history. City officials are practically jubilant over the development because incoming seniors aren’t expected to heavily affect traffic, schools or other city services, while adding to the tax base.

Most commuters to the campus will drive counter to peak traffic on both 6200 South and Bangerter Highway, according to studies on potential congestion.

Residents in adjoining neighborhoods of single-family homes reportedly urged the project’s approval in public hearings, a notable contrast to recurring fights over high-density projects elsewhere along the Wasatch Front.

That piece of land — labeled “a gem” by several city officials — was long owned by the Utah Department of Transportation and used for gravel and equipment storage. For a largely built-out city of roughly 10 square miles and 60,000 residents, it was one of Taylorville’s last shots at using a big swath of undeveloped-land to boost employment, according to Wayne Harper, city economic development director.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Wayne Harper, a state senator and economic development director for Taylorsvile, has helped guide city efforts to land Summit Vista as a job-producing project on about 105 acres of former UDOT property in the southwest portion of the city.

Newly elected Mayor Kristie Steadman Overson calls Summit Vista “the very best possible fit that we could get for our city.

“This really fills a niche in Taylorsville and in the valley,” Overson said. “This has been through a lot of administrations and a lot of City Councils. I’m just the fortunate one who happens to be in the mayor’s chair as we cut the ribbon.”

City planners created special zoning for the project, streamlining the approval process for Summit Vista at it builds more phases. “This is density about as high as it gets and we’ve done it in a really good, well-thought-out way,” said the mayor. "This is high density that will work.”

Harper said the city made its plan “flexible enough to meet the demands and the changes in the market and the economy now and in the future.”

Pay to enter, refund when you leave

Like other continuing-care retirement communities, Summit Vista takes a unique approach to the money side of senior living, one aimed at reaching large numbers of aging homeowners.

Residents aged 62 and older typically sell their existing homes and put that capital toward a sizable “entrance deposit” — ranging in this case from $180,000 to $550,000 — to get their spot in the gated community.

Though they don’t technically own the dwelling, the deposit lets them occupy an apartment ranging from a 700 square-foot one-bedroom to a 2,000 square-foot two bedroom, with customized floor plans and fixtures.

Monthly living fees then cost between $1,800 to $2,900 and cover access to all amenities, meals and a $500 stipend returned each month for use at the clubhouse restaurants or grocery store, along with “every utility you can think of,” said Kelly Ornberg, Summit Vista’s sales and marketing director.

Then, when residents move out or die, 90 percent of their deposit is either refunded to them or their heirs. The other 10 percent goes toward capital expenditures and refurbishing the unit for the next residents.

“We really believe in serving the middle-class market,” Ornberg said. “We always look at that person that worked really hard, has a house to sell and has a small pension — and that’s who we want to serve.”

The Hardestys have no kids, “unfortunately,” said Pat. She was a family-history researcher and consultant for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he worked as a corporate trainer. They sold their 1,900 square-foot home of 32 years for $296,000 and, with cash from other investments, life at Summit Vista pencils for them financially.

But the move means a lot more than that: no more pruning in their tree-lined backyard, or snow shoveling or having to climb stairs with bad knees. And it means joining a socially engaged community of their peers.

While they haven’t been able to move in yet, they’ve been socializing with future Summit Vista neighbors for nearly a year.

“It’s going to be wonderful to be near people who are going through some of the things you’re going through and can relate,” said Bill Hardesty. “Together, it will be a mutual aid society in so many ways.”

Continuing-care retirement communities tend to put that heavy emphasis on the social aspects, in hopes of reducing the health-eroding isolation that commonly affects elderly people living on their own.

Residents also guide community life, providing input on everything from building layouts and rules for the hundreds of clubs to the texture of the green beans.

That engagement and a general focus on wellness tends to make residents healthier, extend their lives and postpone if not avoid the need for acute care, according to studies on aging and advocates in the senior-housing industry.

And the older segment of the U.S. population continues to grow. A recent study — notably, from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute — found that the number of Utahns 65 and older is expected to double by 2065, from one in 10 residents to about one in five.

From distant clouds to ‘a perfect storm’

Life plan communities were at one time a revolutionary business model in senior living.

John C. Erickson is credited with inventing the entrance deposit and, by many accounts, pushed its potential to the hilt. Through a company called Erickson Retirement Communities and a series of nonprofits and complex tax-exempt bond transactions, he developed a system of using deposit money for construction capital interest free, instead of borrowing from banks, making the dwellings and attendant services more affordable.

In a generation, Erickson grew a single care facility in Maryland into the nation’s largest network of life-plan communities, with 19 sites across the country. The chain even had its own television network and federal insurance plan.

But by the eve of the market downturn, Mark Erickson, who was chief operating officer at the time, said his father’s business was carrying $1.2 billion in debt — just as the housing crash was leading to lower home prices and preventing senior homeowners from selling without a big loss in equity.

Customers dried up right about the same time as credit. As John Erickson told an interviewer at the time, “Now you’ve got a perfect storm, not just a cloud on the horizon.”

Mark Erickson said he looks back with some misgivings at Erickson Retirement Communities’ high-flying approach to borrowing, which, he said, raised concerns as early as 2003.

“My dad is a serial entrepreneur and has risk tolerance that’s just beyond what any normal person has,” the younger Erickson said. “He had this vision that he was going to drive this through and build it.”

The whole thing crashed into a voluntary Chapter 11 and Erickson Retirement Communities auctioned its assets off to another company, with the Ericksons ceding ownership and management. The new company lives on as Erickson Living and currently serves about 20,000 residents across 11 states.

Along the way, members of the Erickson family and several company directors faced a $100 million lawsuit filed by a bankruptcy trustee, accusing them of acting against the company’s financial interests and using company money for private use on purchases such as yachts, a jet and unauthorized loans.

Mark Erickson countered that jittery bankers who’d loaned the company millions over the years forced the bankruptcy in a fight amongst themselves. And in media statements at the time, John Erickson said the Chapter 11 reorganization helped shield thousands of community residents from being thrown out of their apartments or losing their deposits to hungry lenders.

“No resident was ever harmed,” Mark Erickson said. “Yes, we had to go through some downsizing and that was no fun. And it gave actually a good transition.”

Build it, but as they come this time

Summit Vista, now led by the younger Erickson, a graduate of Vanderbilt University and The Wharton School, is on track under a much simpler business model, backed by several of Utah’s top blue-chip investors.

Co-equal on the $440 million project are Gardner Company, one of the state’s biggest developers, and owned by Kem Gardner; Solamere Capital, a Boston-based private equity fund run by Romney and his eldest son Tagg; and iStar, a real-estate investment trust based in New York.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mitt Romney was joined by Kem C. Gardner at a recent speaking engagement, hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber at the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown at City Creek on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Through their companies, Gardner and Romney are also investors in a new continuing-care retirement community in Taylorsville, called Summit Vista.

Erickson said the Summit Vista project is operating at far more sensible debt levels, under a construction loan package overseen by Zions Bank. The project also is ramping up in more staggered phases with regard to staffing costs. And Gardner Company’s project manager for Summit Vista, Mark Pace, confirmed there was more cash going in upfront on the project.

“It’s not that we like the business any less,” Pace said. “But our financing structure is much more cautious.”

“We’re not getting out over our skis on this,” he said. "We will build to meet demand. We have 100 acres. We will continue to meet demand and if there’s some softness in demand, we’ll stop building until things stabilize again and go forward.”

Pace noted that even in the last downturn, when the entry deposit model was getting beat up, occupancy of retirement communities like Summit Vista continued to climb.

“It’s a lifestyle decision, it really is,” he said. “It’s people who still get up and go and do things but they don’t need the big house anymore. They can be around other people who are in the same stage of life and be engaged and make healthy life choices and extend their lives.”