Buckner Opens $240M CCRC with High-Profile Partnerships, To Sell Historic Campus

Last week marked the official grand opening of Ventana by Buckner, a $240 million high-rise continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Dallas.

Ventana is part of a crop of urban CCRCs rising across the country, and it stands out for the numerous partnerships that it has forged with high-profile organizations in its local market, including noted chef Stephan Pyles; health system Baylor, Scott & White; and aerobics and wellness pioneer Cooper Aerobics.

But even as not-for-profit Buckner International was welcoming the first residents to this new jewel in its senior living portfolio, the Dallas-based organization has been working to close on the sale of its original retirement campus, originally opened in 1954.

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In both its gleaming new CCRC and in making the decision to close a historic campus that no longer was meeting the market, Buckner could be demonstrating a path forward that more nonprofits will be taking in the years ahead, as they must make significant investments in growth while also making some hard decisions about legacy properties.

That was one takeaway from a recent Transform interview with Charlie Wilson, who leads Buckner’s senior living business as SVP of Buckner Retirement Services. Today, Buckner Retirement Services has a portfolio of six communities across the Lone Star State.

Highlights of that interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or Google Play.

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On partnering with Stephan Pyles, a “founding father of Southwestern cuisine” who has created 22 restaurants, including Flora Street Cafe in Dallas:

We’re very fortunate to work with Chef Pyles. Our offices are in downtown Dallas. We’re about a block and a half from Flora Street Cafe. So, over the years, I’ve been very familiar with him and his work and eat at his restaurants. He’s had a couple different restaurants near us, and they’re always excellent.

As we were creating this product, we were really trying to think about who we could partner with that would be well-known in this market to our constituents and just a really good partner overall. Stephan Pyles is just a wonderful guy. He’s great to work with. He’s very interested in understanding our business and what we’re trying to accomplish, adding value to that.

He’s done a wonderful job with the menus, with helping us with the training … I really think it’s a level above anything I’ve seen in senior living. It’s really unique. We have 140 individuals that have moved into Ventana, and so far the feedback is really good.

I think it’s going to work well for him and for us. He says that many of the people that are moving in are customers that he’s known for years, so he’s just continuing to meet their needs, where they’re at.

Bistro at Ventana

On convincing Pyles to come on board:

There was a group of us having lunch [at Flora Street], and had a conversation with him about what we were doing, where it was located and what we were trying to accomplish with Ventana. He seemed very interested and wanted to look into it some more. We had a follow-up conversation … and actually discussed how we saw how this arrangement might work. I don’t think he was super familiar with how we run our dining programs. We have a meal credit and people can spend that down; however, they want the different dining rooms on our campus.

We talked about whether we’d have it open to the public, and that was one of the restrictions we had with the neighborhood there. They were concerned about traffic, and so we don’t have any outside public [customers] except for guests of the members that live there.

I think it’s a great marketing benefit to Ventana to be associated with Stephan.

It’s a consultant basis. He’s not managing the program. He creates the menus, [helped] with the selection of the chef at Ventana, and he’s helped with the branding. We have his name on the signage associated with each of our dining venues. He’s also helped with training. He’s kind of gone above and beyond as we’ve gone through the startup. Startup of a building this size is a pretty big task, and he’s helped provide staff for training and support along the way.

On striking a partnership with Baylor Scott & White:

We’ve had a relationship with Baylor Scott & White going back to its very roots. Father Buckner was a Baptist minister — he’s the founder of Buckner — and 140 years ago, he was involved in the startup at the first Baylor hospital near downtown Dallas. They have a little rotunda that has their history, and there’s a picture of him and some other gentlemen there. So, those ties are pretty deep.

Over the years, we’ve worked with Baylor on different programs.

As we were planning Ventana … we really wanted to partner with the best, and so immediately we thought of them and sat down and had conversations about how we could partner. They’re providing the chaplain, which is unique because in most of our other communities, we provide that service ourselves.

We are also contracted with them for their medical director for Ventana, so that’s a really positive thing. They have a house calls program that we anticipate partnering with them on. And we’re still in negotiations to get this set, but they have an ACO. So, I think there’s going to be some ways we can partner with them, as one of the post-acute providers in their network.

Pool at Ventana

On population health benefits due to improved wellness for residents on Baylor’s health plan:

That’s certainly one of our goals with with Baylor. I think, of course, the members that live at Ventana likely will see Baylor is one of the more quality providers and plans that they can be a part of, and so that that can very well happen.

On the partnership with Cooper Aerobics:

Dr. Kenneth Cooper is really a pioneer in the field.

Back in the 60s, he was having debates with other physicians [who said] your heart only has so many beats in a lifetime. Why would you exercise and waste those heartbeats? It seems really archaic nowadays, but he was a pioneer in the aerobic field.

I think he’s well known around the world, but in Dallas he’s really kind of a rock star. The Cooper Institute* has a campus that’s probably five miles from our campus. It’s a beautiful campus. I’ve been there myself and had their day-long physical. They give you a full work up and put you on a program that’s right for you.

We really targeted them from the very beginning to try to partner with on the wellness side because many of our members who live at Ventana have either been to the Cooper Institute* for their physicals, or they’ve had memberships there with ongoing exercise programs.

So having that [partnership serves] branding purposes for us, but also for them, they’re continuing to meet the needs of their clients they’ve had over the years. Much like Stephan Pyles.

They’re actually managing the wellness program. Each member that comes in, if they choose, can go through an assessment and get set up on a program that meets their needs. I think it’s really been a critical relationship that’s benefited us in our marketing efforts here in Dallas, but it also has real meaning and benefit to the people that live here.

On recent comments from HumanGood CEO John Cochrane about nonprofits ceding market share to for-profits:

He’s very visionary. He’s got a great organization. I think that’s been the challenge we’ve been looking at, is how do the not-for-profits grow and scale as quickly as the for-profits? I still haven’t seen answers out there.

The best example I’ve seen — I’ve made two trips with our group to Presbyterian Homes and

Services in the Minneapolis area. They’re up to 40 communities. They have a growth plan to develop two to three communities a year. They showed us their pipeline in the works. It’s very impressive. I think other not-for-profits need to see that and learn from them.

In the not-for-profit sector, we tend — as John said — to be risk-averse. Very slow to make decisions. But I think if we can compartmentalize our risk and develop a strategy with our boards that allows management to work within certain parameters to be able to grow our mission through new communities, we could do a lot more.

We could do a whole lot more financing. That’s another challenging area. Traditionally, we use bond financing. There’s advantages and disadvantages. If you’re doing an entry-fee community, the time to market related to getting the pre-sales necessary for financing can be challenging. We need to figure out the rental market. Typically, with that you can start working on a project before you’ve actually started your sales effort. So, your upfront costs are lower.

So, those are some of the challenges we have. But I agree with John that we’re missing a big opportunity right now because the for-profits are able to move quickly and step in there and get the capital behind them to be aggressive.

On Ventana’s plans for growth:

We developed a plan in 2011 with our board, and largely we’ve executed all that it called for … so, we’ve been working through, with our board, our strategic direction. We’re culminating thaata in a meeting in January, and I think there will still be some work after that. For us, the main thing is getting alignment with our board on what direction we’re going to hit for the next 10 years. I think there’s a lot of opportunity.

It’s likely that we’re going to land that we really want to reach down into that middle market. We can leverage the Ventana brand, and I think there’s a lot of things we can do in the middle market to help meet that need. Most of our other communities are rental communities. So, we’ve just got to figure out the vehicle to accomplish that [goal] and continue to grow.

On selling the historic East Dallas campus:

That was a little tough for the organization, to close our historic campus. But, I think that’s something that non-profits need to do a better job of, as well. Being able to recognize when you have a campus that’s outdated, [and] maybe the market’s not right anymore.

The campus slowly had census issues. We did a couple different market studies looking at trying to rebuild the campus, reposition it. There wasn’t any clear indication that it woul dbe successful. We kind of had a hard time with that and couldn’t make a decision until the occupancy became so low that it really became such a financial drain that we decided, are we being good stewards of our assets, of our money, because [with] the amount of cash that we’re putting into that campus to supplement it, we could have built other campuses to benefit many more seniors.

We got to the point where we really were pushed into a corner and had to make a decision. I think, in retrospect, we’ve talked about it with the board and said, we need to be looking at our campuses with a longer-term horizon, not expecting a campus to necessarily last for 60 years. There’s probably a life expectancy where we need to make decisions sooner. But it’s difficult for a mission-minded organization with a big heart for the people we serve. I think we’re in a good place now.

Click below to listen to the complete episode:

*Editor’s Note: Physicals are performed at the Cooper Clinic, not The Cooper Institute, which is the nonprofit research institute founded by Dr. Cooper. Both are both located on the Cooper Aerobics campus along with Cooper Wellness Strategies, Cooper Fitness Center, Cooper Spa, Cooper Hotel, and Cooper Complete.

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