If we build it…
As Emerald Heights embarks on its 20th anniversary year, construction has begun on a brand new Fitness Center and plans are underway to build new apartment homes, a multi-purpose center and expanded dining venues. As we build upon the legacy of our founders, we take a moment to reflect on how it all began, and recall the extraordinary journey these visionary leaders took to create the community we cherish.
Emerald Heights, now a thriving, nationally recognized Life Care community that is home to more than 450 residents, began like most great things do — as an idea. In this case, it was Whitney Corwin who conceived of and championed the idea of building the first long-term care retirement community on the Eastside.
Corwin had learned about continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) and was intrigued by all they had to offer, but the closest ones were in Seattle… and they all had long waiting lists. By 1979, he decided he wanted to create a community especially for Eastside residents.
But how could he make that happen? He needed a lot of help and a lot of determination to make his vision a reality. The first person to join him in his efforts was a fellow member of First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, Harry Wilson.
Picking people with pluck and persistence
Together, they approached friends and colleagues, and over time, the team managed to recruit a task force of 35 people. All but one were members of the First Presbyterian Church congregation.
When Corwin presented his ideas to the task force, he determined there was significant interest in his vision for a CCRC on the Eastside, but there were few people willing or able to put in a significant amount of time and effort in as volunteers to make it happen.
Fortunately, he found a core of eight very determined people to form the Eastside Retirement Association (ERA) and serve as its first board. Jim Gay, a lawyer, wrote the Articles of Incorporation and the Bylaws. Gay and Wilson were among the four members who signed the Articles of Incorporation. The non-profit organization would work to create in the Eastside excellent residential living, opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment, and a secure future for senior adults.
“Whitney Corwin recruited me,” recalls Frank McAllister. “He was a client of mine, and I had a lot of respect for him as an upstanding attorney.”
“I really wasn’t planning on moving into any retirement home. I thought I would move to Arizona and play golf,” he continued. “But I suggested that they get Jack Wright to join the board because I knew he would get things done.”
“I let them meet in the conference room of my insurance business. Then they convinced me to join the board!”
Corwin was persuasive, and he recruited people with vision, determination and persistence. These characteristics would be called upon many times in the challenging decade to come.
Searching for a site
Once the ERA decided to pursue building a new community, the challenge became finding and successfully acquiring a suitable site.
“We were out looking for land to build,” recalls McAllister. “We started in Bellevue. We met with a lot of homeowners’ associations.
“We spent five years trying to convince one neighborhood group of the value of a retirement community in their midst,” he explains. “[In the end,] they rejected us.”
The board pursued several sites in the first few years, including the location of the current Bellevue Library, the southwest corner of the downtown Bellevue Park and another on Wilburton Hill where the Bellevue Botanical Gardens sit today.
“Then we heard about this nice site in Redmond that the state wanted to sell to generate capital funds for schools,” McAllister continued. “It was proposed that a developer purchase half on our behalf; the school district would get the remainder.”
To secure the land, the ERA formed a partnership with Kitchell Construction, which was willing to purchase the land and pursue construction of Emerald Heights. The parcel was acquired in 1987.
The ERA had also formed a key partnership with Retirement Centers of America, Inc. (RCAI), which was excited about Corwin’s plan after studying the feasibility of creating a successful retirement community on the Eastside. In the contract that the ERA negotiated, RCAI agreed to provide consultation, marketing and management services and to provide all the front money itself until permanent financing could be acquired. At last, the ERA had access to real money and the expertise they needed.
The board still needed an architect, but none they interviewed were willing to work without secured financing. RCAI then suggested the firm of Roger L. Schutte & Associates of Omaha, Nebraska, which had worked on about 25 retirement homes throughout the country. Like RCAI, Roger Schutte agreed to invest in Corwin’s vision and worked on the promise of payment once the financing was secured. Schutte traveled frequently to Bellevue to make presentations, study Northwest architecture and meet with the board.
While many might measure the ERA's progress in terms of whether it had acquired land, or built a building or welcomed a resident, accountant Bob Crist, who still serves on the parent board of Emerald Heights today, can measure it in funds collected and disbursed. And this was a turning point. When he was first called in to conduct an audit of the ERA financial records, he met in Corwin's home, at the kitchen table, and reviewed a single sheet of paper. There was no money to track at the time! But that was about to change in a big way.
Early construction photos reveal some of the site conditions.
Finessing the finances
Then came the challenge of getting permanent financing. Unfortunately, this challenge came right in the middle of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s, which created a slowdown in the finance industry.
“We couldn’t locate any American banks interested,” recalled Wright. “But we got the services of FORCE Financial, which specialized in finding financing from overseas banks. FORCE arranged a consortium of banks in France, Scotland and The Netherlands to provide the $58,300,000 we needed to build.”
But that financing deal contained stringent requirements. Rather than the 5% deposit that the ERA had been collecting from prospective residents, the bank demanded a 10% deposit from each and also required that 65% of the units be pre-sold.
It was a scramble, and it was not without some trepidation that the ERA went back to each depositor and requested more money. However, most agreed quite readily to double their investment and get the project moving ahead.
According to Wright, they had to reach the 65% mark, secure the financing quickly and break ground by November 1, 1990, or risk losing it all.
“As we were putting the project together, we had to finalize the details for the kind of services we would offer,” he explained. “We found that we needed to secure a Certificate of Need from the state of Washington. We convinced the state that if our residents didn’t get Medicaid monies, we should be granted the ability to build 100 nursing beds from a separate pool and not compete for bed allocation with those organizations that took Medicaid clients. The state agreed with the stipulation that we must break ground by November 1 , 1990, or lose those beds.”
“That’s when I got committed to become a resident,” said McAllister. “Harry told us that it would take all of us on the board to reach the 65%. We lost very few who didn’t step up and give the additional 5% down.”
The final financing challenge was to ask the Washington State Housing Finance Commission to approve the issuance of tax-exempt bonds. The commission, which usually financed low-income housing projects, had never before financed a non-profit community such as Emerald Heights. It required that the ERA get the sponsorship of a community organization. First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue agreed to be the sponsor—without assuming any financial responsibility—but it requested that initially 50% of the board members come from the church. (Today, the board has 25% from Presbytery USA and three resident members with full voting rights.)
Managing mishaps, misfortune and mud
With financing secured, the ERA was ready to proceed with construction. But the challenges were far from over.
The construction estimates came in over budget, and Kitchell Construction, who had purchased the land, bowed out. Fortunately, it honored its agreement to sell the land to the ERA, and Koll Construction Company, which had just completed the Ida Culver Retirement facility, was willing to take the contract at the budgeted price.
Still, the problems were far from over. The developer was dissatisfied with the work of the project manager and recommended to the board that he be fired. Unfortunately, he got wind of his pending release and cleaned out all the paperwork related to the job, including the alterations requested by incoming residents.
And then there was the mud.
“As I noted at the recent ground breaking for the new Fitness Center, we could only get a little ways into the property,” explained Wright. “For several months, we struggled with boggy, muddy ground.
“At one point we ’lost’ an entire bulldozer in the muck!,” he continued. “That’s when we made the decision to haul in quarry rock so we could proceed with construction. Some of those large chunks are still rising to the top today.”
According to Jane Turnbull, Harry Wilson was not a man to give up easily. He was both persuasive and persistent, as she experienced personally when he asked her to serve on the board of directors.
“When Harry Wilson called me after my first husband died in 1980, I explained to him that I had my hands full learning to run a lumber company,” she recalled. “Then, 10 years later, Larry and I finally agreed to come and meet with the marketing person and view the “model” of the community.
“Between us we had firmly decided, ‘We will not sign up today nor put any money down,‘” she continued. “As we met with the salesperson, he mentioned, ‘Oh, you’re the one we are recruiting for the board!’”
“By the time Harry Wilson called me the next week to ask me again to serve on the board, I said yes,” she adds. “And we put money down on an apartment that day.”
These aerial photos show the Emerald Heights campus in development, from December 1991 (top) to September 1992 (bottom).
Reaping the rewards
When the doors opened in 1992, several of the founding board members were among the first residents to move in. Others moved much later. Today, as Emerald Heights embarks on its 20th anniversary year, five of the original board members are still living in the community and reaping the rewards of their hard work and careful planning.
”I served on the board for seven years before we actually moved in,” said Barbara Knopf. “Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that this place got built. Most of us were not experienced with construction so it was a STEEP learning curve. But it was fun!”
Current residents and future residents, who are now participating in the planning and design of the campus expansion, are benefitting from many lessons learned by the original founders. They encountered and solved many problems, and they proved Corwin’s idea was a great one.
That can’t be said of all ideas, of course.
“Remember when we chose a cheaper design for the carports?” asks Wright, recalling one of the not-so-good ideas and the lessons they all learned in the process. “They fell down (on residents’ cars) the winter we had heavy snow.”
Sadly, Whitney Corwin himself did not live to see Emerald Heights open. He died in December 1988. However, his legacy lives on. Emerald Heights has served his generation well and is planning expansions and upgrades to serve generations to come.
Despite all the challenges, each of these founders enjoyed being part of the process and feels a sense of pride about what they created.
“I have no regrets,” reflects Turnbull, who has been a resident since November 1992. “Being part of the creation of this community has been the best experience of my life!”
The new 12,000-square-foot Fitness Center will be built on a site next to the current Fitness Center. The top photo shows the current Fitness Center under construction; the bottom photo shows the construction of the new Fitness Center beginning right next to it.