The leadership of Blocher Homes hastily called a meeting last week with the half-dozen loudest critics of plans to close the century-old residence for seniors in Williamsville.
Daniel O'Neill – president and CEO of Blocher and its parent, Beechwood Continuing Care – tried to allay the group's concerns before they met with a Buffalo News reporter later that day.
Hilda Allen, who at 103 is Blocher's oldest resident, wasn't having it.
"I told him that he wasn't to do anything until I had kicked the bucket," said Allen, who moved in last month after falling in her Town of Tonawanda home.
"I'm dead serious," she told The News, chuckling at her unintentional gallows humor.
Blocher plans to sell its longtime home to People Inc., which would expand the structure and reopen it as mixed-income apartments.
Blocher residents say they were blindsided by the proposed closing and they don't want to leave a facility where they appreciate the services, the attentive staff and the sense of community. A small group may picket outside the Evans Street home.
Blocher and Beechwood officials said they have tried to be transparent in addressing residents' concerns. They say the intended sale is driven by the changing economics of senior care.
The residents aren't alone in opposing the sale. Neighbors along Evans Street and in the stately homes on Village Pointe Lane, behind the Blocher property, don't want the senior residence closed, either.
In response, Blocher is asking what its residents want to see in an assisted-living facility at Beechwood and People Inc. is weighing changes to the project site plan.
"We wish we could just pick up Blocher and physically move it to the Getzville campus," O'Neill said, but instead he wants to ensure residents can have the same quality of life at the new facility.
'A jolt to the system'
The recently revealed plan calls for Beechwood to sell the Blocher Homes property in Williamsville to People Inc. That agency would renovate the existing building, which has 57 beds, and build an addition doubling the size of the structure and creating a total of 87 beds, at a cost of $29 million.
Officials with the nonprofits say they tried to coordinate the project announcement to tell Blocher's 50 residents first without overly stressing them.
A July 25 letter to the residents described the "possibility of repurposing" Blocher Homes and promised, if required approvals are granted, a "respectful transition plan for a new 'home.' "
The letter invited residents to a meeting to be held a short time later in Blocher's auditorium.
It didn't explicitly say the senior residence would be sold and closed, nor did O'Neill use those words when he addressed the Blocher community that day. For those residents who did understand what was happening, the news came as a blow.
"To be told you have to move is a jolt to the whole system," said Joyce L. Wilson, 86, a former newspaperwoman who has lived at Blocher for four months.
Allen, a former schoolteacher, speaks clearly in a voice that retains her native Welsh accent.
"I was disgusted. Absolutely disgusted," she said. "It's like a desecration. Honestly, it's like pulling down a church, to me."
In an interview last week in the library, a small group of residents said Blocher is a special place that can't be replicated within Beechwood's sprawling campus in Getzville.
The residents praised the grounds, activities and entertainment, including Zumba classes and classical music. They said the nurses and other staff offer personalized attention and remind them when they skipped their medication.
"Children can feel safe that they know their parent is being taken care of," said Mary Frontera, 93, a Blocher resident for two years.
And they raved about the food, including prime rib, veal marsala and an ample breakfast menu. Guests can come for dinner; resident Arlene H. Bolton has a son-in-law who times his visits to liver and onions night.
When Bolton requested gazpacho, the cooks added it to the menu.
"You might say we're a little spoiled," said Syd MacDougall, 75 and Blocher's youngest resident, who arrived in January after a series of strokes.
Blocher cites industry challenges
Residents say management hasn't told them enough about where they would go if Blocher closes.
O'Neill said the organization is sharing as much as it can about what would happen, when, though the project awaits state and local approvals.
He said they scheduled meetings with residents for Friday and this coming Thursday to get their input on what they would like to see at a new assisted-living facility at Beechwood's Millersport Highway campus.
At the meeting with the small group of outspoken critics – one tenant compared it to being called to the principal's office – O'Neill got emotional at one point. A resident accused Blocher of pursuing the sale as a "money grab," O'Neill recalled.
"That really hurt," he said, adding, "This has nothing to do with money."
He said the proposed sale of Blocher Homes is driven by industrywide challenges in the delivery of senior care and a desire to bring all of Beechwood's service lines onto the Getzville campus.
Blocher has been below full capacity for years, primarily on its less-desired second floor. Occupancy fell to 73% last year, the organization reported, as seniors live longer at home.
Blocher Homes has lost money each of the last four years, with the loss rising to nearly $330,000, on $2.8 million in revenue, in 2018. O'Neill emphasized Beechwood is a nonprofit, but it has to be a sensible steward of its finances.
"Understandably, there are residents that are completely against the proposed repurposing of the facility," O'Neill said. "There are others, I think, interested in learning more about the proposed initiative. And then there are definitely others that have shared their complete understanding and support of the initial concept."
Bolton, while unsettled at the prospect of leaving Blocher, said she likes the idea of easily accessing a broader range of medical services.
"There are advantages like that to being under the same roof," said Bolton, 92, president of the resident council, who lives at Blocher with her husband, Ralph.
Residents plan protest
Blocher also has 60 employees, and their fates aren't known at this point.
And neighbors along Evans Street and on Village Pointe Lane have objected to expanding the Blocher building and converting it to mixed-income apartments, with some set aside for people living with disabilities.
They don't want the added parking and parking lot lighting, the access road onto Village Pointe, loss of green space and the feared increase in noise and congestion.
The attorney representing People Inc. and Blocher Homes, Sean Hopkins, said the organizations are considering changes to the concept plan to address neighbors' concerns.
He said the possible changes could include eliminating the access road to Village Pointe Lane, shifting the parking spaces on the site and making modifications to the single, large addition planned for the Evans Street side of the existing structure.
People Inc. and Blocher would share any revised plans with neighbors next month before the project returns to Williamsville's Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals in October, Hopkins said.
Still, the most dogged opponents aren't just waiting for moving day. A small group of residents got together to create signs reading, "Hell no, we won't go," "The silent generation is silent no more" and "All we want is honesty."
They would attach the signs to wheelchairs and walkers and take their protest out front of the Blocher Homes.
"That should make the TV news. It might even hit the national news, who knows?" Wilson said. "Especially if we have a 103-year-old picketing."
MacDougall wondered about the host of ABC's "World News Tonight": "Think David Muir will come here?"