John Gwilt and his wife, Barbara, have many treasured memories of the historic Sylvan-Verona Beach lakeside community.
The couple were well-known in the community from their successful seasonal restaurant, the Spaghetti Factory. Their house was on the road across from Oneida Lake and just a couple doors down from the elementary school, where the small enrollment made it easy for teachers to get to know the children well year after year.
Even after the loss of their son Jason, to cancer at age 16, the community came together, with the dedication of a plaque and a tree planted in his memory on the school grounds.
But change is inevitable, and in 2009, after declining enrollment to fewer than 100 pupils and over protests, the school district closed Sylvan and Verona Beach Elementary School. The site was sold to a group of investors but languished for years, vacant. There was talk of some sort of re-use but nothing came together.
Now, however, construction has begun on converting the school, opened in the mid-1950s, into apartment homes for senior citizens and a base for services for the elderly with an emphasis on staying healthy, involved and engaged. If the schedule pans out, it will open in May 2020, named after the young man honored in the plaque and named the Jason Gwilt Memorial Senior Apartments.
“We’re so happy that something great is going there, and it’s gonna be good for the whole community,” John Gwilt said.
The project is collaboration among city of Oneida Housing Authority, ElderLife Inc and Norstar Development USA. The collaboration was awarded a low-income housing tax credit allocation and state subsidy by the New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency in May 2018. Construction began Nov. 26 and is on schedule despite some weather delays, with much of the work so far consisting of interior demolition, said Housing Authority Executive Director Bob Walters.
The project cost is put at $16 million. Construction financing includes a conventional construction loan, aid from the low-income housing tax credits, the state Homeless Housing and Assistance Program, and a City of Oneida Housing Authority loan backed by grants of $215,000 each from the Community Foundation of Oneida and Herkimer Counties and Oneida County. Final authorization of the county portion is set to go before the Board of Legislators Wednesday.
A new wing and a second floor are to be built. The entire project will have 50 one- and two-bedroom units. Eighty percent are to be occupied by someone age 55 or older, and 35 will serve senior households whose incomes are at or below 50 percent of the area median household income.
Fifteen units are to be supportive housing for homeless frail seniors who will be eligible for a housing subsidy but will be responsible for paying rent equal to 30 percent of their monthly income.
It’s on 10.4 acres owned by Jason Gwilt Memorial LLC, controlled by the housing authority.
Plans include a 17,000-square-foot senior center, much of it from the former school gym and cafeteria. Residents will have access, but local seniors who live elsewhere will be able to take part for a fee.
Senior programming will be run by ElderLife Inc., also known as the Parkway Center in Utica, a not-for-profit entity that is funded by grants, donations and user fees and memberships. Activities in Verona Beach will largely mirror what’s done at the Parkway Center, said Executive Director Kelly Walters, who is married to Bob Walters of the Housing Authority.
It’ll have a fitness center, health and wellness programs like those at the Parkway Center for promoting healthy bones and fall prevention, a senior lunch site with meals through the county Office for the Aging, volunteer opportunities and in general activities designed to keep older people active and socially engaged, Kelly Walters said.
Discussions are starting to bring a rural bus route along Route 13 in front of the apartments, and Walters hopes to have a version of a volunteer-driver service that gets seniors to the Parkway Center in Utica.
“There’s no senior center that serves that part of the county, nor that part of Madison County,” she said. “The next closest senior center is in the city of Rome. There is definitely a need for senior services in that area.”
A marketing study with a consultant said the area could sustain 100 fair-market-rent units and 68 designated affordable, Bob Walters said. Planners took a conservative approach. “We wanted something that was going to be viable, and we didn’t want to really oversaturate the area.”
One planning detail, however, had nothing to do with market studies, rents and senior services. It was about memory and community continuity.
A year after Jason died, children at the still-operating school were part of a ceremony dedicating a memorial to him and the planting of a tree in his honor on the school grounds. The memorial objects are still there. Since conversion work began, they’ve been surrounded by protective construction fencing.
After the school was closed, the property was sold to a team of investors from the greater area. Years passed, but nothing was built.
The Walters family was regularly in the area. They had a summer home in Sylvan Beach. Kelly kept hearing from seniors in western Oneida County that a senior center was needed their way.
One day, Bob Walters was passing by the old school, and it occurred to him it would work as a senior center.
“It’s close enough to all of the activity during the summer months but yet far enough removed,” he said. “There’s peace and tranquility, especially for senior living. If you want to be part of the chaos in the summer you cross the bridge into Sylvan Beach. You’ve got fishing right here off of the canal.”
John Gwilt recalled that Walters approached him about it early on.
“I thought it was a terrific idea,” John Gwilt said. “I said if you’re really interested in doing this project I’d help you go through the ABCs with the town.”
One issue, though, was the memorial to Jason. The investors who owned the property at the time had strong ties to the greater Oneida Lake area and had told the Gwilts that if development plans required using the spot where the memorial to Jason and the tree stood, they would move both to an appropriate spot elsewhere on the grounds. When the Housing Authority approached with the new plans, they insisted on the stipulation be carried through.
It will be.
“It was only right,” Walters said. “Plus they’re really well liked in the Verona community ... They’re pretty much an anchor in that community.”