By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Because there are more important things to talk about--like who's hot--it should come as no surprise that at Minc, and in the bars along Cedar Springs Road, the talk on a recent weekend was not about gay marriage or New Jersey Governor James McGreevey's coming-out revelation. It has been a divisive year in America in all things gay. It has also been a distracting one: While Republicans and Democrats manipulate the wedge issue of gay marriage, a group of gay and lesbian Dallasites, adopting the laissez-faire capitalism that Republicans trumpet, have moved ahead on a plan to build a gay and lesbian retirement village here.
It might induce nausea in the young gay bar crowd to consider it now, but should they remain in Dallas, they will likely have the option of retiring to a place touted by its founders as the nation's first gay and lesbian "continuing-care retirement community," known in the geriatric industry as a CCRC. There are a handful of gay and lesbian retirement villages in the nation being built or already completed, but they don't feature all the components the board of directors of Dallas' Silver Hope Project are planning: residences for independent living, an assisted living facility, a unit for memory-impaired residents and an area for round-the-clock nursing care. "The only time you'll have to move is when you go to rest land," says Jim LeCroy, the vice president of the Silver Hope board.
Lory Masters, a real estate agent who has been integrally involved in the effort to establish the village, says that the project is in the developmental phase, though she has raised $175,000 to fund a feasibility study that will reveal where the village could be built and how many people would want to live there. Although no contracts have been signed to begin construction, she hopes that it will be ready in three to five years.
A former elementary school principal named Robert Voelkle is the board president of the Silver Hope Project. His penchant for "punching the buttons and seeing things happen" at his job didn't exactly dissipate when he retired, so although the Silver Hope Project has been in existence for at least six years, "Robert has been tenacious in driving people crazy to do things," Masters says.
One of the tasks Voelkle assigned to Masters was to raise the money to pay for the feasibility study, but she has also been calling on the managers of both traditional and gay and lesbian retirement villages across the nation. She has also been trying to find a "respected" architect and management company to build and eventually run the village.
She found an enthusiastic partner, for example, in Frank Rees Associates, a Dallas architectural firm that specializes in building health-care, broadcasting and retirement facilities. Three years ago, when architect Christopher Villanueva first heard about the Silver Hope Project, he told Rees, the firm's president and chief executive officer, that it was something the firm ought to get involved in, particularly given their previous experience in building niche retirement communities. "It seems that no one has been able to get a successful [gay and lesbian] CCRC out there," Villanueva admits, but he says that the Silver Hope Project will succeed because Rees is "a very determined man" and because of the firm's experience. Rees says that when he was told about the situation that many elderly gay and lesbian people face--couples who want to move in at a traditional retirement village but are rebuffed, for example--he wanted "to create an environment where that doesn't happen."
The Silver Hope board and Masters hosted a meeting this summer to debrief local "movers and shakers," as Voelkle says, about the project. Town hall-type meetings will be held for gay and lesbian Dallasites sometime after the feasibility study has been completed, but for the invitation-only meeting, Masters had commissioned a brochure to be printed. When she received the first draft, it featured a picture of "little old white-haired ladies on white couches," Masters recalls. That was not going to do. "Do not make me send this to the gay community," she told Rees Associates. "Gay men wouldn't be caught dead in that. I want handsome gay men in ascots."
Rees says that the 400 surveys that interested people have filled out at the project's Web site (www.silverhope.com) indicate that there are enough potential residents, who are not required to be gay or lesbian, for the village to have "a high probability of success." Planners estimate that anywhere from 120 to 150 residences for independent living would be built in the first phase of the village's construction, which would be finished an estimated 54 months from the day the Silver Hope board signs a contract with the architect, developer and manager. "What we're trying to do is hold [the cost of a unit] down to $150,000 to $200,000," Voelkle says.
When Rees began casting about among his developer and management contacts, however, a number of them said they were too busy when they learned the nature of the project. "We're taking more risks on this than we would on a normal project," he acknowledges, although he eventually found a partner in Charles Trammell, the CEO of Retirement Communities of America in Memphis, Tennessee. The only difference that Trammell sees between a traditional retirement village and the one the Silver Hope Project wants to build is technical, not cultural: "The mix of units would be a little bit different in that I think you might have more homes than apartments early on," he says.