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Senior Living Meets Mega-Churches in Innovative Development Model

Master-planned developments that include senior living have become increasingly commonplace, and often they’re touted for bringing multiple generations together to shop, dine, receive health care, or for other services and recreation. But one innovative project underway in Georgia makes spirituality the centerpiece, and highlights the potential for senior living and churches to partner on new developments.

When Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in south Atlanta acquired a 55-acre tract of land adjacent to its existing campus last year, leaders of the 6,700-member congregation faced a choice.

“We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do with the land, so we prayed about it and talked it through,” says Executive Pastor Tim Luke. Initial thoughts revolved around a new church building, so the existing church and the 1,000-student school run by Eagle’s Landing each would have more space. But that wasn’t to be—instead, a “Ministry Village” emerged as the real plan, Luke tells Senior Housing News.

The Ministry Village is a collection of local ministries that now all will be co-located in the new development. They are a foster and adoption ministry called Uniting Hope 4 Children, the Henry Country Pregnancy Resource Center, Eagle’s Landing Christian Counseling Center, and a senior living community dubbed Lake Vista at Eagle’s Landing.


The whole project is unique, as far as Luke is aware, in offering “cradle to the grave” services: the adoption agency, school, church and counseling center, and senior housing. The senior living component was the first to fall into place and will serve as an anchor for the Ministry Village, he says.

Luke, the senior living developers at Omega Communities, and designers at three: living architecture recently spoke with SHN about how the project came together and is structured, the implications of church partnerships for senior housing, and key lessons for others interested in similar undertakings.

For-Profit Meets Nonprofit

Birmingham, Alabama-based Omega Communities got its start about seven years ago, and now has been hitting its stride by honing its model and undertaking a number of successful projects, says COO Jimmy Taylor.

The distinguishing characteristic of Omega Communities’ development business is its practice of forging affinity relationships with churches. Omega Communities owns the senior living community and brings in an operating partner, but the church partner receives between a 10% and 25% percentage of distributable cash flow once the project reaches stabilization. It is akin to a royalty, for certain benefits that the church provides.

“By layering the partnership with the church, you have a really strong opportunity to have referral sources and volunteers, but also for church members who may be aging, who may be widowed or have a partner in long-term care, a lot of their life revolves around their church and they want to be close,” Taylor says.

Supporting the notion that large church congregations represent a deep pool of potential senior living residents, Omega already has added independent living units at some of its completed communities to respond to demand from churchgoers who wanted to live there but did not yet have assisted living needs, Taylor says. Still, Omega’s communities are open to anyone and the company is not relying on the churches to fill the buildings, he is swift to emphasize.

Before taking on a new project, four market studies are done—one by PMD Advisory Services, one by CliftonLarsonAllen, one by operating partner Greenbrier, and one by the lenders involved in the project. Only if all four show strong market fundamentals does the project move forward, says Taylor.

Such caution may be a hallmark of good businesses across the board, but it is notable that Omega Communities is a for-profit enterprise. That may seem surprising given its strong focus on mission and its ties to nonprofit churches, but it is a key part of what makes Omega a good partner on these types of developments, says Taylor.

For one, it helps win community support, because an Omega development focuses on land that wasn’t on tax records and subjects it to property tax. Each property also brings in between 100 and 150 full-time jobs. And being for-profit opens up additional funding avenues to be able to provide state-of-the-art technology, amenities, dining, and programs, says Taylor. However, 142D bonds also have been part of the financing for every Omega Communities project so far, and under conditions of these bonds, 20% of residents need to earn less than 50% of a median income threshold.

To meet that requirement does mean front-end planning, and Omega assumes it will be bringing in less on those units. It operates on a pure rental model, with studio units running in the $3,000 to $4,000 a month range, and memory care going to $5,000 to $6,000.

However, that median income requirement doesn’t take into account whether someone has other assets, long-term care insurance, adult children helping with payments, and other financing sources, so there is some flexibility there, says Taylor.

“We bring a high-end product to a faith based yet for-profit, rental model,” sums up Taylor.

Overall, Omega Communities has created an innovative development framework that is a very comfortable fit for projects such as Eagle’s Landing, Taylor and Luke agree. Eagle’s Landing initially had been in talks with a different developer, but contacted Omega Communities after hearing about one of its projects in Florida, says Luke. Taylor made the drive from Birmingham and the match was made quickly.

“It was really hand-in-glove from the start,” says Luke. “There’s a lot of synergy between the two entities, and we’re excited about the partnership.”

Eagle is Landing

As for what Omega Communities and Eagle’s Landing have come up with specifically, the Lake Vista community design includes 120 independent living units, 42 for assisted living, and 32 for memory care. Situated on 10 acres of the 55-acre tract, the building itself will run to about 205,000 square feet, and has an estimated price tag of $30 million.

Unique aspects of the design include a large, flexible space that can accommodate about 200 people for church services and other events, says Rob Lara, senior associate and project designer with three: living architecture. Eagle’s Landing plans to provide a weekly chapel service.

As with other multi-use sites, one challenging aspect of this project is to create a look and feel that is unified across all the different buildings serving different purposes, Lara tells SHN. To this end, he and his colleagues drew inspiration from the rustic, lodge-craftsman style that is a hallmark of the local architecture, including the Eagle’s Landing church building. For even greater cohesion, three: living also will be doing updates to the existing church building’s entryway and reception area, to reflect some of the elements going into the Lake Vista design.

And as with other projects, Lara and his team have worked collaboratively with the Eagle’s Landing stakeholders to create a design that reflects what they want the community to be.

“We got together and sat down in a big room, and we take a lot of key words we hear in that … process and use those as keywords to design to,” Lara says. Some of the keywords for this project are “inviting,” “welcoming,” “caring for others,” and other terms that spoke to community outreach.

Currently still in the schematic design stage, construction likely will begin in another four to five months and be completed in mid- to late-2018, says Lara.

The architecture firm also is involved in some of the larger Ministry Village plans, including a man-made lake.


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A Mission Field

Considering that this is one of the first—perhaps the very first—development of its kind, there have been few existing models for the leadership team to draw from.

“If it’s out there we’re not aware of it,” says Luke. “I would love to have somebody to go learn from.”

Given that there has not been that type of resource, it’s perhaps remarkable that things have proceeded as smoothly as they have so far for the Ministry Village project. The biggest challenges so far have been related to putting in a new road through the 55 acres—it was the need for this road, to relieve congested traffic leading to and from Highway 42, that was the impetus for Eagle’s Landing to acquire the land in the first place.

“The only challenges have been technical challenges with regard to paving the road and all the obstacles we face in terms of infrastructure there, [such as] how do you build a road on top of an existing sewer line that the county considers a critical resource, a natural wetland?” Luke says. “You’ve got to get approvals and work through the technicalities.”

As for some of the other pieces of the puzzle, they seemingly just fell into place. Eagle’s Landing was not actively soliciting tenants for the Ministry Village, it just so happened that all the organizations were looking for new locations, and the plan seemed to unfold naturally.

Still, others may learn from how Eagle’s Landing has approached the process. For instance, church leadership introduced the concept to the whole congregation by emphasizing the synergies between the Ministry Village and the church, and has kept constituents informed by sharing artists’ renderings and other materials at different stages, Luke says. A former sportswriter covering Atlanta for the Greenville News out of South Carolina, Luke also knows the power of the media, and he says garnering press attention also has created positive momentum for the project.

Asked directly for his advice to other churches considering a similar project, or even just a standalone senior living community, Luke is unequivocally encouraging.

“We have all the baby boomers coming into their senior years, and it’s only going to pick up steam,” he says. “I can’t think of a more wonderful opportunity for people than to live out their senior years in a community as first-class and all-encompassing as Eagle’s Landing is going to be. It gives a church a tremendous mission field.”

Luke specifically endorses Omega Communities, and while the developer no doubt appreciates the vote of confidence, it is not looking to capture the whole market. Indeed, while it has a large and active pipeline of potential projects, Omega Communities is more than willing to share what it knows with other developers looking at the church-senior living model. Indeed, when asked about keeping the lid on its model and protecting its brand, Taylor scoffs. While anticipating that the company will have more than 1,000 beds open or under construction as of the first quarter 2017, he believes the market can support many additional players.

“If we do three to four projects a year, conservatively, over the next 15-20 years, that’s 50 or 60 communities out of 5,000 or 6,000 churches that would fit our criteria,” he says.

He points to the fact that Omega Communities recently was named by National Real Estate Investor as one of three national finalists in the “Developer of the Year – Social Responsibility” category of its annual Commercial Real Estate Awards, and says that mission is paramount for the company.

“We’re doing this for a specific reason,” he says. “We’re not looking to take over the industry.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

Project renderings courtesy of three: living architecture.