Community task force, working with VCC’s owners, steps back

This week, as the last remaining resident of Vashon Community Care (VCC) moved out, and all but a few of the remaining staff members also prepared to depart, the future of the facility remained uncertain.

In September, VCC’s nonprofit parent company, Transforming Age, announced that the facility would cease operations as a residential care facility due to a critical budget shortfall and deep systemic issues including chronic staffing shortages and lack of demand for its services.

At the same time, it was announced that a community task force would be convened to advise Transforming Age on future uses for the building. The group, selected by VCC’s executive director, Wendy Kleppe, and its community relations and development director, Anne Atwell, was also more immediately tasked with helping to communicate to the wider community the reasons behind VCC’s closure.

Members included Vashon Health Care District commissioners, Wendy Noble and Tom Langland, and Vashon HouseHold’s executive director, Chris Szala. Senior Center’s executive director, Catherine Swearingen, also had a seat at the table, as did Vashon Youth & Family Services’ executive director, Jeni Johnson. Other members were Mary Bergman, Christy Clement, Leslie Ferriel, Jon Flora, Carol Spangler and Ken Zaglin. Tim Johnson, manager of Granny’s Attic, served as project manager for the group.

But on Nov. 3, these islanders all resigned from the task force, saying in the jointly signed letter to Transforming Age CEO and President Torsten Hirche that they had learned that Transforming Age would “look internally and externally for its own determination about the highest and best future for the facility, in keeping with its mission and fiduciary interests.”

The group had been told, according to the letter, that Transforming Age was “willing to engage directly with entities that have a desire for use of acquisition of the facility, and to listen to ideas from individuals and groups, including the task force, but does not require the collective involvement of the task force in any substantive official way.”

In both an email and interview with the Beachcomber, Tim Johnson further explained the group’s decision to step away from its formal role with Transforming Age, while still remaining committed to finding a community-minded purpose for the building.

He said the group had met with Hirche and Transforming Age’s vice president of business services, David Knight, on Oct. 26, prompting the letter a few days later.

“We felt we could only perform our mission effectively so long as we were officially involved in the conversation and decision-making about next steps for VCC,” he said. “Transforming Age is doing that more in-house, as is their right, and we have no animosity, merely a desire to not have the public implication that we speak for Transforming Age or have authority over the matter.”

During the task force’s brief time together, according to Johnson, the group had found general consensus that affordable housing for seniors and other islanders was a vital need the facility could address. Other portions of the building made sense, he said, as possible locations for clinic operations, and social service and/or local business use, such as the potential for a daycare space among many other ideas.

Going forward, Johnson said that he and other task force members, both in groups and individually, will continue to “seek and advocate for the highest and best use of this valuable community asset, and to engage community members, organizations, and Transforming Age where appropriate.”

“We’re standing on the shoulders of a long list of people — we’ve all benefited from and invested in what happens in that building,” he said. “The community is the spiritual owner of that building, even if it’s not written on a piece of paper that you can take to a court.”

VCC — a facility sustained by island dollars

VCC’s current facility opened in 2002, several years after a community effort resulted in the establishment of a nonprofit, Vashon Community Care Center. First housed in an older residential care facility on the property and then in the newly constructed building, VCC was managed by Providence Health Care Systems until 2017.

Throughout the years, VCC’s programs were heavily dependent on island philanthropy.

In taking over the operation of VCC in 2017, Transforming Age also assumed ownership of VCC’s building, which came with an outstanding $6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — a debt that Transforming Age assumed and is still making payments on.

According to Hirche, the terms of the HUD loan include a requirement that the building continues to provide services to seniors, including assisted living.

In an interview on Monday, The Beachcomber asked Hirche if he thought that the task force members’ letter of resignation accurately represented what they had been told at Oct. 26 meeting.

In response, Hirche said he could not speak to the task force’s motivations, but that he and Transforming Age were still eager to continue to engage with islanders to determine a future for the building.

Transforming Age’s planning and financial teams have always been involved in strategic planning challenges such as the one now presented by VCC’s closure, he said, adding that it is important for Transforming Age to lead and manage the process of working with regulators to address the restrictions of the building’s HUD loan — a sensitive process that could potentially take months, if not years.

Hirche also spoke at length about the scope of Transforming Age’s nonprofit mission and work, and how that work dovetailed with the need for affordable housing for seniors and others on Vashon.

While he said that Transforming Age was now looking at all options for the building, he believed that a solution would be found that would serve the needs of islanders.

“We will always engage in dialogue,” he said, urging islanders who have ideas or interests in the building to reach out to Transforming Age. “We have invested in the mission of VCC and we continue to be dedicated to the island and the community.”

Sea Mar and Health Care district rule out use

One possible use of the VCC building was nixed last week, after a tour of the facility by representatives of Vashon’s Health Care District and Sea Mar’s CEO, vice-president and architect.

According to health care district commissioners Tom Langland and Wendy Noble, these representatives of Sea Mar have decided that VCC cannot be remodeled economically to create an efficient primary care clinic.

Noble and Langland said that Sea Mar had recently tried to repurpose a nursing home on the mainland into a clinic plus units of low-income housing, but in the end, had to bulldoze that project after two years due to irreparable inefficiencies in the building layout.

Nevertheless, they said, Sea Mar is still committing to creating a new, efficient and modernized primary care building for the island, sooner rather than later.

Currently, Sea Mar faces a deadline for accessing public funding earmarked for that purpose. Three million dollars was appropriated to the clinic’s former operator, Neighborcare, in the 2017-2019 Washington state biennial capital budget. In 2021, those funds were re-appropriated in 2021 to Sea Mar. These re-appropriated funds expire as of June 30, 2023.

Vashon HouseHold also considering usage

Chris Szala, executive director of Vashon HouseHold, told The Beachcomber that his organization has also been interested in potentially acquiring or operating a portion of the building as affordable housing, but had hoped to do so in partnership with Sea Mar.

In discussing Vashon HouseHold’s interests in the building, Szala emphasized the challenges posed by the building’s restrictive HUD loan.

“I know Transforming Age is talking with those regulators to see what may be possible for changing use,” he said. “The only other option would be to completely change the financing and pay off the current mortgage and therefore eliminate the regulatory agreement.”

Szala said he was disappointed to learn that Sea Mar had determined that the skilled nursing portion of VCC would not be suitable for a clinic.

“This does make things more difficult politically for Vashon HouseHold, as I am not sure HUD would let us assume the loan as it is,” he said. “The partnership with the health clinic would have made our position much stronger. I cannot say what is next for VHH on the matter, but will be discussing further with my board.”

At VCC, all is quiet now

All residents of Vashon Community Care have now found other housing, with the majority moving to senior living communities near Vashon, though a small number have remained on the island.

According to VCC executive director Wendy Kleppe, VCC’s collective focus over the last 60 days has been on facilitating a smooth transition for all residents to homes that would meet their needs.

With the high demand for a long-term care workforce, most VCC staff have easily found their next place of employment, she said.

Kleppe, who began working at VCC in December of 2019, added that she has a great deal of respect for the history of VCC in the community and the considerable support it has received over the years, including the last two when she was at the helm.

“I have absolute gratitude for my time here. The outpouring of support and love, I am so grateful for it all,” she said. “It has been a pleasure and honor to serve the island.”