NORTH LIBERTY– While North Liberty grew to a population of over 13,000 in recent years and has gained many commercial entities, one amenity it still lacks is a skilled nursing facility for the elderly.
There are senior residential facilities and housing with contractual services available for seniors, but North Liberty has yet to welcome its own nursing home.
Scenic Development LLC, a 37-year-old Kansas-based firm that has built successful senior communities in Iowa– including Scenic Manor in Iowa Falls and Kennybrook Village in Grimes– has been looking to locate in North Liberty. North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar has been in informal talks with representatives of the firm, and on Tuesday, May 8, he asked the North Liberty City Council for direction on whether or not the council would consider tax rebates for the proposed $15 million project.
The conversation was casual and no action was taken, but the council appeared reticent about rebates.
Heiar told the council that he was seeking direction on the proposal that would include 38 independent apartments, 34 assisted living units and 38 nursing home beds. Scenic Development has issued a letter of intent to purchase 9.5 acres located near the intersection of St. Andrews Drive and Jones Boulevard, pending certain conditions including rezoning of the property to meet the density requirements for multifamily housing.
Because the retirement community would provide three levels of senior living, it would be taxed with two different rates: 67 percent of the facility would be considered residential, and 33 percent will be taxed at a commercial rate.
“In our conversations, we have told them we have not incentivized any residential projects in the past, understanding that this one is different,” Heiar told the council. “So we didn’t have any real clear direction.”
Scenic Development estimates the facility would create 48 full time positions, with an overall annual payroll of $1.6 million. The number of potential jobs is what provided the consensus– though lukewarm– that Heiar was asking for.
“I am not in favor of incentives on residences. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said councilman Gerry Kuhl. “But the reality is they are bringing about 50 jobs to North Liberty. So my inclination is to rebate some of the non-supervisory social security taxes they pay. That ties it automatically to jobs. The more jobs they create, the more we will rebate.” Kuhl said, but indicated he would suggest setting a cap of around $25,000 to $30,000.
Kuhl mentioned the city’s newly-adopted revolving loan program for small businesses, but Heiar didn’t think it was the assistance the company was seeking.
“They are looking for a direct incentive and a $25,000 loan probably is not what they are looking for,” Heiar said. “And in the scheme of a $15 million project, that’s not a lot of money.”
Council member Coleen Chipman said she also would prefer to consider the request in light of the city’s economic development policy.
“Whatever that new policy allows us to do, that’s what I would like to see us do, rather than over and above that,” said Chipman. “Under the guidelines of that policy, if they can present a true need, then that is one of the things we do need to consider. But not on the residential, only the commercial. And it would be a very small incentive. It’s not going to be a tax rebate or that type of thing.”
Council member Terry Donahue said he would not discount incentives for Scenic Development, but wanted more discussion on the matter.
“Incentives can be done in a couple different ways, whether it’s infrastructure or building a road or whatever,” said Donahue. Referring to councilman Kuhl’s suggestion for tying incentives to job creation, he said, “I want to look at that a little more in detail.”
Council members Chris Hoffman and Brian Wayson did not favor city-funded incentives.
“They are a pretty good size for-profit organization and if they want to build in the area, it seems like their biggest competitor would be Oaknoll (Retirement Residence, in Iowa City),” said Wayson. “Oaknoll does quite well on its own and I don’t think I would be supportive of giving them incentives to be here.”
Wayson was particularly against the proposed location.
“I think the rezoning part would not go very far because I think it was quite a contentious issue last time, so I’m not sure that it’s even worthwhile to think about it in that area because I wouldn’t support it anyway,” Wayson said.
Heiar said after the meeting that talks with Scenic Development representatives have only been informal up to this point.
“I would say they are not close to submitting a site plan,” Heiar said in a telephone interview last week. “They asked us early on about incentives, but if it is being taxed at a residential rate, I’m guessing there isn’t going to be strong desire (on the council’s part) to incentivize.”
Scenic Development partner Gib Wood, in a telephone interview with the Leader, said that the North Liberty is a good location for the types of housing and care they would provide.
“North Liberty has little senior housing to speak of, and it is adjacent to larger metro areas, so we hope to draw from that,” said Wood. “We like smaller towns primarily because communities want us to locate there and cities are willing to work with us.”
Wood explained how the company, owned by partners from Kansas and Iowa, came to offer quality senior living options.
“Wayne Anderson, a partner from Williams, Iowa, started it when he couldn’t find a decent place for his aunt to live,” said Wood. “We have determined over the years that people want to age in place. Our goal is to build a community where people can age in place and don’t have to go to another town, or even a different part of town, when their health dictates they need to make a move.”
The part of town Scenic Development has identified as ideal is currently a residential neighborhood. Wood said they have looked at many potential sites in North Liberty.
“This is the preferred location, and there are very few, if any, other locations (in North Liberty) that will work,” Wood said. “ It is really a low-impact land use. Many seniors do not drive, and our employees come and go at off-peak hours. It’s actually a good transitional land use.”
Heiar agreed about the low-impact nature of this type of development.
“We have seen that traffic counts in strictly residential areas are sometimes higher than something like this because not everyone owns a car,” said Heiar. “I think when people hear the word ‘commercial’ they get concerned, but I think what you will continue to hear, as the project moves forward, is these types of facilities are designed to fit into residential neighborhoods.”
How the project will move forward is uncertain.
Wood said Scenic Development will continue to work with the city on the zoning issue, and he and his partners would consider bringing their proposal before the council to present details of the project.
Asked if they would be welcomed, Heiar said they would.
“Sure, they can do that at any time,” Heiar said. “They also have the option of calling the city council members and expressing their questions and concerns.”
Meanwhile, Heiar said, city staff and council members will use the city’s economic development guidelines regarding incentives.
“We will continue to look at the strategy and consider the business and what might be a fair and appropriate incentive for this type of business,” Heiar said.
Regardless of the financial assistance Scenic Development may or may not get from the city, the business will stay focused on serving people, Wood added.
“We are resident-centered,” he said. “We make sure our residents are happy and well cared for; it’s just the way it’s always been.”