The Oldenburg Town Council learned of a plan July 1 to transform Olivia Hall, owned by the Sisters of St. Francis, into apartments for older citizens.

Sister Christa Franzer, the order's congregational minister who leads its governing council, said, "The Sisters have been involved in our own planning process for probably four years now. We, like maybe some of your families, have recognized the need to downsize." She was emphatic that any buildings sold to outside owners must "continue to serve a purpose that fits with our mission." That means a warehouse would not be a suitable use.

Franzer introduced a new partner, Merchants Affordable Housing Corp., Indianapolis, President and CEO Janine Betsey, who reported, "We own a little over 2,400 units of housing in Gary, South Bend and Indianapolis." Some units are service enhanced with additional services, while other apartments have none.

Betsey met with the Sisters of St. Francis five years ago and visited the campus. About a year ago, the two parties began discussing other ways Olivia Hall could be redeveloped. She said, "We would look at using historic tax credits ... as well as rehabilitation tax credits" and fill the funding gap with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 202 money that is targeted to provide additional capital for projects that serve seniors 62 and older.

Although this section hadn't been funded since 2010, this year there are two application cycles, according to the president.

"We've been looking at putting 41 units" for adults 62 and over into Olivia Hall, which is north of the Motherhouse and chapel. The nonprofit's leaders want to preserve the building's historical integrity. Two units at the front entrance will be required to remain intact.

She also has talked about renovations with Thomas Bruns and Anthony Gutzwiller of Bruns-Gutzwiller, Batesville. "They have the right kind of experience for the project and they're local."

Diane Laake, president of Oldenburg Academy, which is near Olivia Hall, asked whether an apartments manager would be on site. Betsey expected the manager would live in a unit. "We use a property management company called Bradley Management. They have extensive experience with Section 202 programs. We really like them." There would be tenant selection criteria and those with felonies would be screened out. "There would be no sex offenders allowed to live there. We do absolutely have standards for individuals who would be able to live in those apartments."

After reading online about townspeople's worries voiced in 2016 when Herman & Kittle Properties Inc., Indianapolis, attempted to do a similar project, Betsey "put together a more sensitive local team to alleviate some of those concerns."

The president was at the meeting to discuss "ways we could design some of the elements that folks would like to see as well as get a legal address."

When OTC member David Wahman learned tenants would be 62 and up, his reaction was, "yes, that's good."

Town attorney John Kellerman questioned if the apartments would be for low- to moderate-income people. The answer was yes.

He asked, "What do you need from us?" Besides presenting the project, Betsey wanted direction on the best local person to provide site access and where to get a specific address.

She knows one problem to solve will be how to get an ambulance, firetruck or trash truck to the building. They won't fit through a back southern gate. OTC member Greg Struewing recalled there was an earlier discussion about the Sisters' partial brick wall being on a historic registry. "A lot of people in the town of Oldenburg would hate to see that come down." She promised, "We wouldn't take the whole wall down."

Struewing asked how many years tax credits would remain in place with certain requirements. Betsey explained initially there is a 15-year affordability period. "The state expects 30 more years after that." If the company didn't make money, it can opt out of the extended use period, although a proposed bill in Congress would disallow that.

Laake observed, "As a nonprofit organization, you're not in the business to make money." Betsey reported, "We've sold one property in the 36 years we've been in existence. We typically don't sell our properties."

Struewing said, "In my opinion, I don't know if this is the right fit. What's going to happen if we get some bad apples in there?" He fretted that nearby property values could decline if that happened.

The Merchants Affordable Housing Corp. president imagined tenants would range from "older individuals who work for the Sisters" to locals who desire smaller homes there "that are affordable and nice."

Sister Jackie McCracken, Indianapolis, community facilitator for Merici Village Apartments, owned by Merchants Affordable Housing Corp., reported, "Our residents are all individuals with disabilities. ... Most of them are high functioning, but we also offer programming that's very helpful," such as life skills training (how to cook and clean). She suggested programs that would appeal to seniors could be offered at the Oldenburg project, plus "how to be a community together. That's what we work on."

Franzer added, "We could see interaction with the Sisters on programs."

Sister Claire Whalen said the town's comprehensive plan noted more economic resources are needed. "Think of the people living there who would be going to the stores ... festivals ... restaurants ... and also being a model for young people. ... It's on the convent campus ... the kind of life they would have, it won't be lonely. These people will have companions on the journey" of aging.

Sister Bernice Stenger said the religious community shares area residents' safety concerns. "There's no way we would put our Sisters in jeopardy ... We would never want any of our Sisters to be hurt."

Franzer observed the order has been in the town since 1851. "Obviously, we love Oldenburg. We don't want to do anything that would be hurtful to the town."

Betsey plans on applying for historic and rehab tax credits in September and will consult her board July 11 about which HUD cycle deadline to meet. The president also wants the architect to meet with Bruns-Gutzwiller leaders to study plans and costs.

After she meets with the small group, plans services and gets more defined information, the nonprofit's president will make another presentation at a future council meeting.

"We don't necessarily need your blessing, but we'd really like your blessing or your general support. ... It's not required for the sources of funds we're working toward."

Wahman said, "I don't want to see those buildings torn down. You have my blessing."
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