LGBT retirement community opens doors in Santa Rosa

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Standing on the second-floor patio of what will soon be his new apartment, John Kennedy had a ready answer for his move next month to the new Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa.

"This place just felt right," said Kennedy, a retired college educator from San Francisco who was enjoying a view west to distant, forested hills.

Kennedy was among more than 600 future residents, elected officials and visitors who attended last week's gala opening of the three-story hillside lodge. The facility is billed as the nation's first gay and lesbian retirement community with continuing care.

The developer of the upscale project, Oakmont Senior Living, received considerable praise Wednesday from local politicians and other guests for a providing a luxury resort-like community tailored for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

"This is just beyond anybody's dreams," said Beth Reed, a Novato resident who has long followed the lodge's progress and intends to move there one day.

Reed, 70, said she and other lesbian and gay friends have talked for years about the need for such a project.

"None of us have any kids," she said. "Who's going to take care of us?"

Visitors extolled the details of the $52 million project. The craftsman-style lodge features 64 spacious apartments and six nearby bungalows, a theater with 22-plush leather chairs, a wine cellar, a pool and a second-floor dining room where residents can look south at Taylor Mountain.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, told guests the wood-and-stone lodge reminded her of Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel. "It's that beautiful," she said.

The Santa Rosa company's leaders, longtime builders Bill and Cindy Gallaher, already have developed roughly three dozen senior projects around the state. They continue to own and manage a dozen facilities, including the Varenna community in the same Fountaingrove neighborhood.

The company employs about 1,000 workers and has a half-dozen more projects in the works, including in Folsom, Fresno and Alameda.

"We've had no shortage of investors," said Bill Gallaher. His wife Cindy added that a number of investors live at Varenna.

An expert in senior housing gave the company high marks for pursuing a potentially significant market, even as most developers since the recession have stuck to "cookie cutter" assisted-living projects.

"They are exactly doing the smarter play," said Andrew J. Carle, an assistant professor and the executive-in-residence for the senior housing program at George Mason University. "They are separating themselves out from everybody else."

Eighty percent of long-term care in the U.S. is now given by family members, Carle said. But many baby boomers will have to find other alternatives because of smaller families and because fewer younger women now stay at home and, when needed, can serve as caregivers.

Gays and lesbians often lack children to provide their long-term care, making them a natural market for senior facilities, Carle said. Also, people generally are willing to travel a considerable distance to join an "affinity" community, giving places like Fountaingrove Lodge a much greater reach than the typical senior facility, which usually draws clients from no more than a 10-mile radius.

The U.S. now has perhaps a dozen LGBT senior facilities that exist or are under construction, Carle and others said. Some of those developments seek to serve people with lower or moderate incomes. None apparently has a continuing care component.

Fountaingrove Lodge does. The adjacent Terraces, a 27-unit memory care facility, will serve guests suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia.

The Gallahers said their decision to serve the LGBT community came in part from observing those often considered out of the mainstream. Their experiences include adopting three children from foreign countries and building a Bay Area facility specifically for Chinese-speaking seniors.

At one point the couple was asked to partner in building a LGBT resort. The company doesn't do resorts, Cindy Gallaher said, but "it kind of planted a seed."

When the opportunity came to purchase the land in 2005, she said, the couple knew they didn't want to build a senior community that would compete with their nearby Varenna development. Instead, they chose to focus on the LGBT community.

Cindy Gallaher told guests Wednesday that the lodge would provide its guests a safe and supportive setting "where they don't have to explain themselves."

The 10-acre property is nestled between Thomas Lake Harris Drive and the 13th fairway of the Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club.

In 2006, the project drew neighborhood opposition, not for its proposed clientele but for its size, recalled Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley. He told guests last week that the final design had responded well to the neighbors' concerns.

The 148,000-square-foot lodge is now 65 percent reserved. Its guests will come from not only California but also from as far as Maryland, Florida and London.

The entrance fees range from $199,500 to $925,500, with monthly fees starting at $3,395.

The units, which vary in size from 833 to 2,001 square feet, feature stainless steel kitchens, 10-foot-high ceilings and bathrooms spacious enough to accommodate wheelchairs.

The lodge employs about 60 workers.

Advocates said they will push to build more communities specifically for LGBT seniors. The communities can ensure that couples stay together, and they can provide places where these seniors need not worry about disapproval, abuse or neglect.

"There's this extremely high level of anxiety and outright fear," said Serena Worthington, a spokeswoman for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders in New York City. Of such elders, she said, "you're very vulnerable. You're literally in the care of someone else."

Such facilities also can provide an antidote for isolation.

Daniel R. Redman, chairman of the legal committee for the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force of San Francisco, said many of today's gay and bisexual male seniors lost friends in the AIDS epidemic. LGBT senior facilities can "help strengthen community when it's been so frayed," he said.

Among those visiting Fountaingrove Lodge last week was Mary Thorndal, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons in Los Angeles.

For years, her nonprofit has sought financing for a market-rate LGBT senior facility near Palm Springs. Until now, the common response has been that there isn't a finished example for potential investors to study.

Fountaingrove Lodge now can serve as a model, Thorndal said.

"That's why we admire so much that they've done this," she said.

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