Storied island property has new owner

The Seattle Indian Health Board has purchased the Vashon Community Care building for $11 million.

The Seattle Indian Health Board, a nationally recognized health organization that specializes in services for urban Native Americans, has purchased the Vashon Community Care (VCC) building for $11 million.

According to property records, the sale closed on March 31.

In a statement released on April 3, the Health Board said the purchase was the first step in establishing a 92-bed inpatient treatment center for substance abuse disorders on the VCC site — key to its longtime goal to re-open and expand its Thunderbird Treatment Center, which had closed in 2019.

That 65-bed facility, which offered a 45-day residential treatment program, was located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood in Seattle for 33 years but closed after the Health Board determined that the aging facility no longer met the program’s needs.

“We are excited to join the Vashon community,” said Esther Lucero (Diné) the president and CEO of the Health Board, in a statement issued on Monday, detailing that the facility’s program would combine traditional Indian medicine and cutting-edge therapeutic programs, providing a “powerful alternative to conventional treatment models.”

The statement said the facility on Vashon would be open to all people regardless of their ethnicity or cultural background. Additionally, the facility will dedicate ten beds to serve the needs of patients who are pregnant or the parents of children — a new offering of the addiction treatment program.

“By providing specialized care for pregnant and parenting people, we hope to address a critical gap in services,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), who is executive vice president of the Health Board. “We believe that our approach will help us save generations of our children from entering the foster care system.”

The statement said Vashon is “an ideal landscape” for the center. It noted that the island is part of the traditional homelands of the Puyallup Tribe, and is the site of the Muckleshoots’ “traditional foods/medicines revitalization project” — property on the island’s north end where tribal members harvest and cultivate traditional foods and medicines and live their culture.

“Our teachings remind us of the interconnectedness of healing, and we believe that this space will provide the ideal healing environment for our relatives to receive the care they need to thrive,” said Lucero.

After receiving the statement shortly before deadline, The Beachcomber reached out to the Health Board, requesting an interview with Lucero and other Health Board leaders to further describe their planned operation of the facility, including its staffing model, its accessibility to current islanders with substance abuse problems, and its plans to further engage with the Vashon community.

Seattle Indian Health Board

Seattle Indian Health Board was established in 1970. Currently, the Health Board operates healthcare clinics in three locations, in Lake City, the International District and its newly opened Pioneer Square Clinic. In 2022, it also launched a Mobile Dental Clinic.

In 2020, the Health Board served 4,600 patients, more than 60% of whom identified as American Indian and/or Alaska Native.

Additionally, a division of the Health Board, Urban Indian Health Institute, is the only Tribal Epidemiology Center focused specifically on the nationwide urban American Indian and Alaska Native population.

In its quest to reopen its treatment center on Vashon, the Health Board recently received a $5 million appropriation in the 2023 federal budget.

The appropriation was requested by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes Vashon and most of Seattle. Washington Senator, Patty Murray, is currently chair of the Senate Appropriation Committee.

Jayapal’s office has not responded to multiple requests for more information about the appropriation, which was announced in Dec. 23 press release.

Jaypal, who has frequently visited the island, last held a town hall here in March of 2022, attended by about 75 islanders at Open Space for Arts & Community.

At the meeting, Jayapal broadly discussed the issues that matter most to her — Medicare for all, housing as a human right, climate resiliency, an end to student loan debt, fair pathways for immigrants — and what she called “a vision for who are and who we want to be as a country.”

No islanders at that meeting brought up concerns about Vashon’s specific affordable housing crisis or possible uses of the empty VCC facility at that time.

Vashon Community Care chapter closes

The VCC building and its grounds — a storied place of both rehabilitative and elder care on Vashon for decades — have stood empty for the past one-and-a-half years.

In a statement, Torsten Hirche, the president and CEO of Transforming Age, the building’s former owner, expressed his satisfaction with the sale, stating that it was a natural decision given VCC’s legacy and SIHB’s nonprofit mission and ability to purchase and operate the property.

“It is an honor to transfer the stewardship of this treasured asset to a mission-driven non-profit organization that has such deep roots serving individuals and families in the Pacific Northwest,” Hirche said. “The organization’s dedication to serving the community aligns with the values of Transforming Age.”

Transforming Age, a Bellevue-based nonprofit focused on providing senior care and housing, purchased VCC in 2017, and subsequently operated the care facility, which had been established as a nonprofit in 2002.

Citing a critical budget shortfall and deep systemic issues including chronic staffing shortages and lack of demand for its service, Transforming Age announced that it would close the facility and sell the property in September 2021.

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.

Members included Vashon Health Care District commissioners, Wendy Noble and Tom Langland, Vashon HouseHold’s executive director at the time, Chris Szala, and Jeni Johnson, the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services, among others. Tim Johnson served as project manager for the group.

But on Nov. 3, 2021, the committee’s members all resigned from the task force, saying in a jointly signed letter to 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 decision to resign en masse came after a meeting with Transforming Age executives, Johnson said.

Also in November 2021, Sea Mar Community Health Centers and representatives of the Vashon Health Care District toured the building, with Sea Mar quickly ruling it out as a possible location for a future island healthcare clinic.

Vashon HouseHold (VHH), a local affordable housing nonprofit, was also not able to purchase the property, said its current director, Jason Johnson.

“Vashon HouseHold is always exploring opportunities to increase affordable housing options in this community,” Johnson said in an emailed statement in March. “We regularly review land, homes, and buildings that are for sale and try to see what is possible for us to develop. Typically, we are not able to move forward because of limited public and private funding. At this time, our organization would not be in a position to purchase a large property such as VCC or K2 on our own. We would need to work in partnership with local community organizations and individuals to build or acquire future housing at that scale.”