The institutional brick building at the corner of Cumberland and Union in Brunswick looks a little out of place in this old residential neighborhood of vintage clapboard homes and multi-family apartment houses. But the three-story structure, formerly a 45-bed nursing home, is undergoing a radical makeover and will soon open its doors as The McLellan, a welcoming block of 18 small, assisted-living apartments for couples and individuals 62 and older, in easy walking distance of downtown.
At the helm of the project is 59-year-old Amy McLellan, a full-time critical care nurse with a personal interest in rehabbing old buildings, a soft spot for seniors and a professional passion for caregiving. The project is named for her late father, William Arthur McLellan, a physician with deep family ties to Brunswick.
“I’ve had this dream for a long time,” Amy McLellan said recently.
She said she’s been looking all over Maine for the right building for years and finally found it last October, right at the end of her street.
“I was driving home through the neighborhood and saw a For Sale sign on the building,” McLellan said.
She knew right away she wanted to acquire the empty building and develop an intown residence for seniors in her community. And, working on a tight budget and a short deadline, that’s just what she’s doing. In the process, she’s upgrading the old neighborhood, making good use of an existing building, strengthening community connections and providing important employment opportunities.
Built in 1983 on the site of the former Brunswick Hospital, the building is solid and equipped with essentials such as elevators and a sprinkler system. It’s up to McLellan to supply the interior and exterior charm she envisions through thoughtful renovations and landscaping.
Already, as word spreads about the project, McLellan has taken deposits on eight of her 18 apartments. She’s holding one unit for her neighbors Val and Gerry Menard — 88 and 90, respectively — who live alone in a modest but tidily maintained home a couple of blocks away from The McLellan. It’s the house Gerry Menard was born and raised in; he’s the fourth-generation owner. Val Menard’s been there with him since they were married 62 years ago. They’re understandably reluctant to leave the neighborhood that has been their home for so long.
“Our kids want us out of here because of the stairs,” Gerry Menard said, adding that their bedroom and the only bathroom are both on the second floor, at the top of an alarmingly steep flight of stairs.
They’re still on the fence about moving — what to do with a houseful of furniture, art, china collections, family mementos and bric-a-brac? But as they’ve watched the renovations at The McLellan and gotten to know McLellan personally, and with the steady support of their family, they’re cautiously coming around.
Although she’s working with a solid business plan, a trusted construction contractor and the financial backing of a Maine-based bank, McLellan said she still has moments of anxiety about the ambitious project.
“This is a lot of sweat equity and most of my life’s savings,” she said, showing a visitor through the busy construction site. “This is me, believing I can pull it off.”
‘It’s not brain surgery’
McLellan’s project has deep roots. In the early 2000s, with an idea of someday rehabbing an old commercial structure into apartments, she obtained her commercial real estate licence and went to work part time for a brokerage in Portland.
“I wanted to learn the business of development,” she said.
She was still working full time as a nurse and also raising a family.
“I don’t know how I did all that, but I did,” she said.
In 2005, the brokerage assigned McLellan to represent the interests of the Maryland-based developer of the former Knox Mill in her childhood hometown of Camden. McLellan’s job was to work with local officials to obtain the necessary building permits, help design the apartments and commercial spaces, develop marketing materials, recruit tenants and build community support for the multimillion dollar project.
“That role,” she said, “gave me the confidence to know I could do this kind of project, as long as I stayed task-oriented and took it step by step. It’s not brain surgery.”
With the Knox Mill experience behind her, McLellan began looking for a development project of her own. But instead of a high-end apartment building, the committed nurse and patient advocate found herself contemplating the need in Maine for a long-term acute care residence. Unlike a nursing home, which provides only basic nursing care, this kind of facility provides a permanent home and 24-hour skilled nursing services for people who will need high-level care for the rest of their lives — for example, those dependent on mechanical ventilators who cannot live independently.
Over the course of several years, she looked at existing buildings that could be repurposed into the homelike environment she envisioned. McLellan considered historic structures and other available buildings from Calais to York and west to Dover-Foxcroft.
In addition to the geographic and regulatory challenges she encountered, McLellan found widespread community prejudice against the idea of renovating a facility for the population she wanted to serve. Projects serving children are often easier to have approved, she said.
“It seems the only use towns can agree on [for renovating old buildings] is for schools,” she said, which she said is ironic given Maine’s status as the oldest state in the nation, a plethora of historic buildings standing empty and the crying need for services, including a range of residential options, for aging Mainers.
By the time she found the old Skolfield House nursing home, McLellan had settled on a plan to provide housing for independent older Mainers, with supportive nursing assistance available as needed. She was attracted to the walkable intown location, close to shopping, services and amenities, unlike many assisted living projects that are located in more remote areas. She took several months to update her business plan, working with CEI, a business-development organization headquartered in Brunswick.
With her plan in good shape, she lowballed an offer for the building — $1,025,000 instead of the $1.6 million original asking price — and was stunned when it was accepted without further negotiation. With funding from Norway Savings Bank, the deal closed in October 2015. Construction started this past August, after site design, planning and permitting were completed.
Plenty of early interest
McLellan expects the units will be ready in early 2017. Rent — including all utilities, one shared meal per day and up to two nursing visits per week — will range from $1,850 to $3,900 per month. While the cost is likely prohibitive for low-income seniors, McLellan’s research tells her it is in within reach for middle-income earners and retirees. This population also needs congenial, supportive housing options, she noted, as they downsize from larger homes, escape social and geographic isolation and become more reliant on support services.
Following McLellan on a hard-hat tour of her project, it’s impossible not to feel her vision and enthusiasm. Where once were fluorescent-lit corridors lined with the dreary shared bedrooms and bathrooms of the nursing home, sunny, open one- and two-bedroom apartments are taking shape. Ranging from 300 to 900 square feet, they’ll offer patios and balconies, full kitchens, big windows and other amenities as well as safety features such as bathroom grab bars, emergency call bells and rooms designed to maintain hand contact with furniture and walls, minimizing the chance of a fall.
McLellan will live in a small one-bedroom unit on the first floor, sharing nursing visits with one or two other nurses as needed — although she also intends to continue her full-time work in the critical care unit at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Also on the first floor is a big, open kitchen, which will be available to residents when the evening meal isn’t being prepared. The dining room will offer a casual, bistro-like atmosphere for meals and other activities. There’s a fitness center and a media room for screening movies, watching the news and other group viewing.
McLellan recognizes that her small project doesn’t go far in meeting the growing need in Maine for senior housing options, but it’s a help.
“I’m getting at least two calls a day asking about these units,” she said. “It makes me feel good that I’m providing a product that people are happy and excited about.”
She doesn’t rule out the possibility of using this experience to develop another property, including, perhaps, a nonprofit model that would be in easier reach for low-income Mainers.
“I’m already energized to take this concept further,” she said. “This is all about allowing people to live their lives to the fullest as they age, to show that life continues to grow and change in positive ways. I think I can bring the same energy and feeling to another setting.”