By JOHN FLOWERS
SALISBURY — Faced with mounting expenses, soaring fuel bills, lower client rolls and the prospect of major new competition, Shard Villa — one of the oldest and most historically significant senior care facilities in Vermont — will likely close its doors this November.
While the Shard Villa board of directors plans to keep the ornate, 130-year-old mansion and its spectacular Italian wall murals open to the public, the senior care component of the estate — barring a quick, major infusion of cash — will cease operation this fall after an almost 90-year run. That portends a potentially traumatic uprooting for more than a dozen current Shard Villa residents (most of whom are in their 90s) and layoffs for the 14 full- and part-time workers at the facility.
“It is a decision that has been a long-time coming, and not an easy one to make,” said Shard Villa board President Diane Benware. “But it does not seem economically feasible to continue.”
While the board has not yet formally voted to close Shard Villa’s elder care operation, it is taking steps that would lead toward ending that service on Nov. 1. Those steps include notifying the state of Vermont and securing permission through Addison County Probate Court, which is responsible for enforcing the execution of wills.
Columbus Smith built Shard Villa in 1872-74. He and his wife Harriett began taking in elders in 1919, then the family formally launched the senior care facility in an L-shaped addition built in 1922 — a service they sought to perpetuate through their respective wills. Shard Villa leaders will have to convince a probate court judge that financial hardship now makes the senior care operation untenable.
Officials vowed to work with families to find new accommodations for current Shard Villa residents. They also promised to work with staff to line up new jobs.
“I lie awake at night wondering, ‘Are there any other options out there we haven’t fully tapped out?’” Benware said of the difficulty in coming to grips with the nursing home’s future. “It’s been a very special place to me and a lot of other people.”
A special place that has unfortunately been losing money in recent years, forcing Shard Villa directors to backfill deficits with an operating endowment that has dipped below $100,000, according to board member Chuck Burdick. Shard Villa has a separate savings account of around $275,000 for upkeep of the mansion, built in the French Second Empire style. The mansion is featured on the National Register of Historic Places and requires ongoing maintenance and repairs. The board, to date, has invested more than $400,000 in the mansion’s preservation and has raised $180,000 toward a goal of $400,000 for additional renovations to the property, including its historic barn.
“We are very under-capitalized,” Burdick said.
Shard Villa currently charges its residents around $130 per day, a fee that has increased by around $8 each year over the last couple years, according to Burdick. Unfortunately, the $130 daily charge falls considerably short of meeting the costs of running the facility, Burdick said. He added the Shard Villa board recently learned it would have to raise the daily charge to around $175 — a 34 percent increase — for the operation to become solvent.
“That would be unconscionable for us,” Burdick said of a dramatic increase for clients, some of whom are of limited financial means.
Compounding the problem, Burdick noted, is that the senior care facility recently went through more than a year of not being at its full capacity — it was operating with 12 residents instead of 14 residents. That translated into $7,400 per month in lost revenues from an already shaky bottom line, he said.
But the most sobering financial news came down only a few weeks ago, when Shard Villa officials began pricing fuel oil for the coming winter. They learned the current price was $4.40 per gallon — a huge increase over last year — with no assurances costs won’t go even higher. Shard Villa had budgeted $22,000 for heating fuel this past winter, and was all of a sudden looking at a potential bill of $55,000 for the upcoming winter, according to Benware.
“For me, it was the fuel,” Benware said of the tipping point in determining the nursing home’s viability.
Benware and Burdick credited longtime Shard Villa Director Deb Choma with keeping the senior care facility operating at a high quality in spite of financial problems.
Choma declined to comment for this story because she was still digesting the news.
Shard Villa directors added that the current financial problems plaguing the nursing home may get worse.
Burdick noted his board’s own research indicates that two major retirement communities slated for neighboring Middlebury will likely draw prospective clients away from Shard Villa. The now-open Lodge at Otter Creek and planned Eastview at Middlebury projects will, when fully built-out, offer more than 230 units of elderly housing — including assisted living facilities for frail seniors and those with memory loss ailments.
Benware and Burdick said that while Shard Villa can offer seniors excellent care in a bucolic setting, it cannot compete with some of the amenities — such as swimming pools, personal showers, dining halls, nearby shopping and proximity to Porter Medical Center — offered by Eastview and/or the Lodge.
“Adult caregivers for their parents are increasingly looking for amenities,” Burdick said. “We are isolated, and there are people who want space that is more centrally located.”
Of course, there are some who think Shard Villa’s isolation is part of its charm. Kate Gieges’ late grandmother was a resident of Shard Villa from 2001 to her death this past spring at the age of 99.
“We looked at other places and liked the fact that (Shard Villa) was rural and open. It’s not a sterile, perfected environment like a lot of places,” Gieges said.
“And we have always been amazed with the staff.”
Gieges, a Cornwall resident, said she doesn’t want to see the senior care facility close. She believes the Shard Villa board has gotten too small over the years and should’ve been more aggressive in its fund raising.
While things look bleak for Shard Villa’s senior care business, Benware said there is at least a small chance a closure could be averted.
“We would certainly not turn down any donation people would like to make,” said Benware, who said she’d be happy to get phone calls.