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A Long-Delayed Vision Takes Root

After 15 years, a California church begins building a $105 million senior housing project.

After 15 years of planning, dozens of government-ordered studies, and eleventh-hour scrambling for financing, Bethel Family Worship Center of Tulare, California, has broken ground on a $105 million development to provide senior housing, assisted living, and Alzheimer's/dementia care.

For Pastor Dennis Sunderland, providing a first-rate, multilayered complex of aging and mental health services, facilities and staff for the Central Valley agricultural and dairy community's elderly has been a longtime dream. He first presented the concept to the church board in 2000, soon after the then-55-year-old pastor and his wife Marilyn assumed the pastorate of the Assemblies of God congregation.

Such a massive undertaking might seem a lot for any church, especially one that averages weekly attendance of around 375. Still, Bethel's leadership backed both Sunderland's call to provide quality senior care in an underserved region as well as his long-term plan for nonprofit operations to eventually help pay for a new church sanctuary.

"I've always had a certain passion for seniors," Sunderland explains. "As a younger minister, I visited so many seniors who were not properly cared for. It was heartbreaking."

On Oct. 27, ground was broken for the first of the four-phase Grande Oak Village project. First up is a 91-unit senior housing development, 28 of those units for Alzheimer's and dementia patients, and 63 apartments for assisted living residents.

Each of the subsequent phases is expected to launch about three months after the previous one. When completed by the spring of 2017, Bethel church plans to have added a 70-unit independent living complex; 82 units of age 55-and-older apartments; and a 20,000-square-foot community center, complete with a gymnasium, kitchen, and food bank.

Proceeds from the sale of Bethel's church buildings and property, and donations of some of the land for the new development launched the project, with about $75 million remaining to be being financed. Bethel, which currently meets in a school auditorium, expects income from Grande Oak Village to make those payments.

Those revenues also will help finance a new 57,000-square-foot convention center, a structure that also will be the church's new home. Initially, it will host 900 worshippers, with room to expand to 2,000 seats.

Tulare city officials have supported the project, seen as both a boost to services to the area's critically underserved senior population and the local economy. The city council granted extra time for the project's permit process while financing was arranged, and some 40 water, soil, traffic and other studies completed.

Site preparation work began in mid-November; the first building should begin to rise by early February, Sunderland says.

The pastor admits the journey has tested his faith and resolve, especially during the past five frenetic years of planning and preparation.

"This project is so immense that sometimes it fills my heart with fear," Sunderland says. But God's perfect love casts out all fear. Every morning, I've gone to a big oak tree on the site property and spent time praying for courage to do what needs to be done that day to move forward with the project."

Bethel has contracted with Integral Senior Living, which manages 55 senior communities in 15 states, to operate Grande Oak Village. ISL spokesman Jeffrey Smith says the project not only will help alleviate a dire shortage of services to the elderly in the Central Valley, but create hundreds of new jobs.

"Additional senior living communities are going up all over the country to meet a shortage in housing for the next generation of seniors that will need independent living, assisted living, and memory care services," Smith says.

Sunderland notes that the completed complex will be state-of-the-art in its equipment and facilities, and its staff comprised of medical and nursing professionals.

"We don't want to just warehouse people, but give them the best quality of life possible," the pastor says.

Now 70 years old, Sunderland also knows that someday, he, too, may need such a setting. He is quick to add, however, that retirement plans are not yet on his horizon.

"I don't know if ministers ever truly retire," he chuckles.

Pictured: Rendering of Grande Oak Village facility plans


Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.