Agencies seek secure future for Serenity House

You may not think of the 21 developmentally disabled adults at Lynwood Center’s Serenity House as part of your family.

But you, they say, are part of their family. And those ties are at risk if Serenity House closes when long-time owner Ruth Closser-Wieman retires.

“If Serenity House is closed, the people living there would most likely be moved off Bainbridge Island and away from the community, which is really their family,” said Donna Dahlquist, who knows the Serenity House residents through Helpline House’s community access program, which she heads.

Closser-Wieman says that after 30 years, she needs to relinquish the burden of caring for clients who need 24-hour supervision.

But with government reimbursements flat and costs rising on Bainbridge Island, she has been unable to sell the operation as a going concern.

“Everything has gone up – property taxes, sewer costs, liability insurance,” Closser-Wieman said. “I’m looking to sell the property.”

While the prospect of operating a care facility hasn’t generated much interest, neither has the historic building, constructed in 1914 as the West Port Blakely School.

But the multi-acre parcel, across from Lynwood Center and overlooking Pleasant Beach Drive, has been attractive.

“The value of the facility is in the land,” Councilwoman Christine Nasser Rolfes said. “If it is sold to a developer, the building may be torn down, and the residents would have to find other places.”

No one can say with certainty where those other places might be, but they would likely not be on the island. There are currently no other licensed group homes large enough to accommodate the Serenity House population, and few openings in the smaller group homes on the island or even in Kitsap County.

“This is the kind of facility that is difficult to site someplace else,” Nasser Rolfes said. “For us to watch it go away would be irresponsible, because it’s not an easy thing to replace.”

For the past few months, an informal “task group” has been brainstorming for ways to keep Serenity House open.

The group includes representatives from the city, the Housing Resources Board, Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority, the Interfaith Council, Helpline House and the Virginia Mason clinic, which has provided medical services to the residents.

“We got together and started asking questions, and realized it was much more complicated than we thought,” Nasser Rolfes said.

To find answers, the city is contracting with the housing authority to conduct a feasibility study on the available alternatives.

While the $31,000 contract is subject to approval at tonight’s council meeting, work has already begun, and the study should be finished by the end of February.

The city has secured a 90-day option to purchase the facility, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said, which will keep the property off the market while the study goes forward. While the city may be part of a purchase arrangement, it would not actually operate the facility, Kordonowy said.

“There is a lot of interest among non-profit groups in the community and in Seattle,” she said, “but when they start asking questions, we don’t have the answers. That is what the housing authority study will provide.”

The study will also develop scenarios for ownership and operation, which might include the housing authority as well as the city.

“(Closser-Wieman) wants to sell, and we need to find a buyer,” Kordonowy said.

While no one has precise numbers or even a reliable estimate, the parties do know that keeping the facility going will require money – money to purchase the operation from Closser-Wieman, who has been operating on a shoestring and has never realized a return on her investment; money to refurbish the almost-90-year-old building; and money to operate.

Roger Waid of KCCHA took a preliminary look last year, when that agency considered purchasing the facility itself, but rejected the option because it could not determine how to make it a break-even proposition.

“The building needs a considerable amount of rehabilitation, including but not limited to fire-safety work,” Waid said.

The facility received a state grant last year to install fire sprinklers, and while the work was not done, the grant may still be available, Waid said.

One way to make the numbers fit better would be to increase the population back towards the licensed 34 residents or even beyond. But that would likely entail offering an expanded array of services, which, in turn, could require different licenses, Waid said.

“We need to look at what the licensing will need to be and whether or not there is a likelihood of that happening,” he said. “Our emphasis is on trying to find a way to maintain the existing services, and I’m confident that would require going back at least to 34 people.”

While Closser-Wieman wants to sell as soon as possible, she will be flexible if waiting means keeping Serenity House’s residents in their community, which is her bottom line. Some of the residents are regulars at Lynwood Market, their faces known to customers even if their residence isn’t.

“This community has been just great,” Closser-Wieman said, citing the medical care that Gregory Keyes and the other doctors at the Virginia Mason clinic have provided, the dental care from Sally Hewitt, and the Kitsap Transit access vans.

“Everyone on this area knows everyone in the house, and they feel so accepted,” she said of her clients. “It’s a wonderful Christmas gift for me that the city is even considering something that would let the people stay here.”

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