Traverse City News and Events

NMC Considers Uses For Eastern Ave Property, Including Senior Living Community

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 4, 2022

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) officials are exploring potential uses for a vacant 55-acre lot owned by the college on Eastern Avenue – including the possibility of building a senior living and learning center that would bolster’s NMC’s mission to deliver lifelong learning opportunities, create a sustainable revenue stream for the college, and provide mentorship connections between students and older adults.

NMC purchased the property – located directly across from the college’s Eastern Avenue campus entrance (pictured) – in 1969 for $165,000. The college uses a small portion of the site for storage and maintenance, according to NMC President Dr. Nick Nissley, but the parcel has otherwise sat vacant since its purchase decades ago. “I would speculate that, like many educational institutions where you sit on a postage stamp that encompasses the campus, you often want to acquire buffer property, typically for growth potential,” says Nissley. “There was likely some foresightedness there to ensure that as the college grows, it would be able to accommodate that growth.”

No deed restrictions were placed on the property acquisition, and a “high level review of zoning” confirms the site can be developed, according to a staff report. At a recent NMC Building and Site Committee meeting, staff and board members discussed possibilities for using the property to meet NMC goals. Those goals include connecting more activities with the NMC mission, providing and diversifying ongoing college revenue, and expanding lifelong learning, mentorship, and experiential learning opportunities.

A growing trend of building retirement or senior living and learning centers on college campuses across the country piqued committee members’ interest as an option for the NMC property. The concept typically calls for building on-campus senior housing, with access to programming for older adults as well as the option to audit classes and partake in campus amenities and events. Nissley says NMC has a commitment to providing “lifelong learning opportunities,” starting with NMC College for Kids and moving up into degrees and certificates for adults, but right now doesn’t deliver as many options for seniors outside of NMC’s Extended Education. “Older adults are a population we might be able to better serve,” Nissley says.

According to The New York Times, on-campus senior living centers offer educational and social upside – notably intergenerational mixing – as well as financial benefits for the college. “The communities promise a new revenue stream for institutions that are coping with reduced state operating support and declining college enrollment in many parts of the country,” according to the publication. “They are bringing a new generation (or old generation) to campus to fill classes, eat in dining halls, attend student performances, and become mentors.” The article adds that retirees “who are happy to be living on campus, including alumni and faculty members, could become a fertile source of fundraising.”

Traverse City also has a rapidly expanding retiree base from which NMC could potentially draw. According to the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) of Northwest Michigan, Grand Traverse County will have an over-60 population of 31,545 by 2026, up from 27,818 in 2021. That trend has caused concern among local experts over whether there will be enough housing and healthcare services available to accommodate the “Silver Tsunami” headed to the region. Nissley says as part of NMC’s “value of stewardship,” the college is obligated to consider whether property like the Eastern Avenue site could fulfill a community need, including senior housing. “We owe it to our taxpayers and community to be good stewards of our fiscal resources,” he says. “Right now that real estate is sitting idle, and we want to look at whether there’s something else we can do with it.”

A senior living campus could deliver on other targets within NMC’s new strategic plan, according to Nissley, including sustainable programming. “We know that with declining state appropriation and increasing reliance on tuition that we need to be more innovative in terms of our revenue streams,” he says. “The college isn’t going to be able to rely strictly on tuitional and academic programs in the future.” Nissley points to other efforts to broaden NMC’s reach and bottom line – from overhauling the college’s police academy to creating new maritime and culinary certificates to expanding the college’s aviation and nursing programs – as examples of a trend that would continue with exploring new uses for college properties. “This is just one more step in that history of innovating,” he says.

Options for the NMC parcel could include not only housing but leasing agreements with other organizations to use the property. Committee members studied a model used by Schoolcraft College in Livonia, which established a development company in 1986 to develop 62 acres of vacant land. Schoolcraft constructed several buildings – including office, IT, medical, and sports facilities – and now leases them through 501(c)3s to organizations and businesses, with the buildings reverting back to the college at the end of the lease agreements. The 501(c)3s can invest net revenues in securities and provide transfers back to the school for educational and charitable purposes, according to NMC's staff report. Schoolcraft’s lease agreements generated $1.8 million in net revenue in 2021.

NMC Trustee Laura Oblinger, who chairs the Building and Site Committee, says the college’s first step will be to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) and hire a firm to complete a market analysis of the property. “It’s been clear that our eyes as we go through this process should be wide open,” she says. “(The recommended use) could be senior living, and/or two or three other things, or it could be something completely different. There is an enormous big picture here, which is ensuring that we’re utilizing our buildings, our infrastructure, every college footprint in a way that contributes to the needs of our students and the community.” A project timeline calls for issuing the RFP and hiring a consultant in August through October, reviewing the market analysis findings in October-November, evaluating potential financial and operational models in November-January, and updating the committee on findings in January-February. That could lead to site development – taking soil borings, completing a topographical survey, and creating a formal campus master plan for the site – in spring 2023.

Nissley says initial feedback he’s received from architects, developers, and other professionals about prospects for the site have been encouraging, “giving us the indication we should at least do this market assessment.” Nissley and Oblinger both say NMC’s review process will include opportunities for public input on how the property could be used. “NMC has a history with almost every move we make of getting outside of our immediate circles and into the community (for feedback)," says Oblinger. “We will certainly continue to do that here.”

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