Updated Mon, Jan 6, 2014 10:33 am
Although the civic club that sparked development of Heritage Commons more than 30 years ago no longer exists in Athens, a volunteer organization it created has continued to shepherd the senior citizen housing complex through good times and bad.
That has changed though, with the recent sale of the Kurtz Street apartment building. The building and an adjacent apartment/office building have been purchased by Athens businessman Les Cornwell and his children.
“It’s really kind of the end of an era,” said Alan Goldsberry, president and one of the founding members of Housing for Athens Senior Residents, a nonprofit organization that has its roots in the now-defunct Athens Jaycees.
“Nothing is going to change except the ownership,” said Cornwell, who declined to disclose the purchase price. “I have no intention of changing, really, anything about it.”
Cornwell said he has hired the same company, Silverheels Property Management in Marietta, that had been retained by Housing for Athens Senior Residents to operate the facility.
Heritage Commons, a 45-unit apartment building that cost $1.6 million to build in 1981, was the brainchild of the Athens Jaycees. They set up the non-profit Housing for Athens Senior Residents to develop and own the project.
“A couple years before that, we did a community survey to find out the most prominent needs in the community that needed addressed,” said Ohio University professor Bill Reeves, who was president of Athens Jaycees at the time. That survey identified affordable housing for seniors as the top need, he said.
Putting together a project of that size was no easy task, and took several years to accomplish.
The Athens County Commissioners provided grant funds that allowed the group to purchase the former St. Paul’s Catholic School and the adjacent vacant lot, where Heritage Commons was built. A construction loan was obtained through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which also provided (and continues to provide) rent subsidy for the tenants.
“It was quite an undertaking,” said Channing McAllister, who for many years has been on the HASR board but was not one of the founding members.
Construction started in 1981, and Heritage Commons opened in 1982.
Ironically, even though it started as a Jaycees project, the original HASR board members could no longer be club members or before long had to leave the Jaycees. At that time, members of the Jaycees — the Junior Chamber of Commerce — were no longer eligible for the club when they reached age 35, according to Ric Abel, who was president of the HASR board at the time of the original project.
The Jaycees held fundraisers, the main one being bingo, to support the Heritage Commons project. McAllister said that smoking was prevalent at the bingo games — to the point that some members of the Jaycees got orders from their wives to change clothes when they got home.
“We were always raising money to keep us flush and keep us operating,” McAllister said.
The former St. Paul’s Catholic School became the county’s senior center, and served that purpose until the Athens Community Center opened. The Retired Senior Volunteer Program also was headquartered there until it moved to the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development. The former school, known as Gaskins Manor in honor of former HASR board member Fred Gaskins, now contains apartments and two office spaces. The former school was included in the sale to Cornwell.
Goldsberry said Heritage Commons faced some challenges over the years, including the changing neighborhood. A grocery store, located conveniently next to Heritage Commons, closed. Also, the neighborhood became increasing dominated by student housing, which Goldsberry said made Heritage Commons less attractive to some seniors. (Cornwell is part owner of Palmer Place student apartments located across the street.) In addition, Beaumont Greene senior apartments opened on Della Drive.
Goldsberry said Heritage Commons saw a drop in occupancy, but it has rebounded in recent years.
Why sell the apartment building now?
“We’re all getting old. It is a lot of work to maintain and keep it going,” said HASR board member Alex Tyre.
“It’s just that people were getting tired, as much as anything else,” Abel said.
The young men who as Jaycees worked to provide affordable housing for seniors are now approaching their senior years.
Abel, who is still on the HASR board, said the HUD rental subsidy has been transferred to Cornwell. Abel said a little more than two years remain on the HUD contract, and Cornwell is committed to operating Heritage Commons as senior housing for that period. After that, HUD and Cornwell will have to decide whether to continue the arrangement, he said.
Cornwell acknowledged that there is probably concern in the community that Heritage Commons will be converted to student housing. Cornwell said that is not his intent, and that unless something unforeseen happens, he plans to continue the senior housing beyond the two years. Cornwell said the student housing market is currently saturated with units.