Seeking gold in a graying future Builder of retirement communities has ambitious five-year program


John C. Erickson keeps a globe within easy reach of his walnut desk at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville -- a telling symbol of a man charting far-reaching personal and corporate journeys.

His pioneering company, Senior Campus Living Inc., has embarked on a five-year expansion program to replicate the unique Charlestown model in Parkville and in towns up the East Coast and into the Midwest.

It's an ambitious program. Each community costs roughly $250 million and there's plenty of competition from alternative kinds of housing for the elderly. Yet by the year 2000, the chairman and chief executive of Senior Campus Living expects to have eight communities "pretty well finished," four or five more under way and to be housing 20,000 senior citizens.

Between work on his expansion plans, Mr. Erickson squeezes in a daily call -- "my best fun of the day" -- to the architect overseeing construction of his other dream, a 90-foot custom trawler.

Design drawings of the craft sit on a table in his office, which has a splendid view of the Baltimore skyline as well as the 110-acre Charlestown community at Wilkens Avenue and Maiden Choice Lane.

In the summer of '96 he'll take the helm of the boat, being built in Vancouver, Canada, and sail it down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and around the Yucatan Peninsula to Florida, where it will be kept.

"I have this ambition to go around the world someday," said Mr. Erickson, a slender, 51-year-old man with sandy hair, glasses and a ready smile.

Mr. Erickson has traveled a long way already. He was raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., the fourth of 14 children. After building leisure housing for active older people in Florida, he came to Catonsville via a serendipitous visit to Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

He had been a seminarian at the university in the late 1960s, until changing his mind about becoming a priest. In 1981 he visited his old school during a business trip to the capital.

"John Erickson, what are you doing here?" a priest called out. It was an old acquaintance, a school official, who mentioned to Mr. Erickson the vacant St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville.

Postponing his return flight, Mr. Erickson drove to Baltimore and looked at the old Catholic church and dormitories and rolling grounds. It was an ideal setting for what he wanted to do: Construct a large retirement community in the style of a college campus, offering residents a complete package of housing choices, health services and recreation.

There would be apartments, from studios to spacious two-bedroom units, for those who could take care of themselves; assisted-living units for those who needed daily help with dressing, eating, bathing or other routine activities; and skilled nursing for people requiring more intensive care.

Preserving the church for use as a chapel, Mr. Erickson renovated the interiors of the dormitories, opened the first phase of the community in 1983 and kept going.

Today the completed community is a series of clustered buildings connected by enclosed walkways. The 2,500 residents can eat at any of six dining rooms, visit a beauty salon, do banking, play pool, perfect woodworking skills, attend a lecture, borrow a book from the library or relax in their homes and watch a Charlestown-produced program on the in-house TV channel.

Although there are roughly 1,000 "continuing care retirement communities" in the United States, including 27 in Maryland with 8,900 residents, the Charlestown model is unique.

"There are only a few in the country that are that large, or even approach that size," said Janet C. Henry, who follows the senior housing industry for Jean Moreau & Associates in Olney, a consulting firm.

"It's the difference between a major state university and a private college," she said, comparing Charlestown to smaller continuing care communities. "There are certain advantages to a major university. [Erickson] can offer more activities, he can offer a broader range of amenities."

The economies of scale help Mr. Erickson offer a pricing scheme that appeals to the middle class -- a characteristic that distinguishes Charlestown from communities that cater to the rich.

A studio apartment with 568 square feet requires a $65,000 deposit and a monthly fee of $797. For the largest apartment, a 1,700-square-foot unit with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a den, gallery and sun room, the deposit is $283,000 and the fee $1,050. The fee for all apartments is $380 more if there is a second person.

The fee covers the cost of utilities, transportation, one meal a day, maintenance, cable television, all activities, security and other amenities.

Individuals requiring assisted living move into smaller apartments for which the entrance deposit is $64,000 to $82,000, and the monthly fee is $1,875 for one person and $2,565 for two. Residents who already have an independent-living apartment don't have to pay a second deposit.

Skilled nursing, in another building, costs $100 to $135 a day.

Although the deposit for the larger units is steep, it's within reach of the people Mr. Erickson markets to: homeowners with a lot of equity. The refundable nature of the deposit also attracts people because it allows them to hold on to their money if they move out of Charlestown or bequeath it to their heirs.

By offering assisted-living and nursing as extra services for extra money, Charlestown keeps the monthly fee for independent-living apartments affordable for people with Social Security and a small pension.

Mr. Erickson developed the Charlestown model after witnessing in Florida the graying of America. People were living longer than ever -- much longer, in many cases, than they had planned when they retired in their 50s and 60s. Leisure communities didn't meet the health and social needs of people in their late 70s and 80s who were developing ailments and losing the ability to drive.

Mr. Erickson noticed something else as well. "For every one person that went to Florida, at least 19 stayed home."

Continuing care retirement communities like Charlestown draw on retired homeowners who live nearby and want to remain in the area. Yet Charlestown also pulls in people like Tom Wall and his wife, Ann, who are from Minnesota and wanted to settle down near a daughter living in Columbia and a son in Richmond.

Mr. Wall, a 79-year-old former chemical engineer, was practicing his pool game last week. Missing a shot, he admitted he was pretty rusty -- it has been 60 years since he played regularly. Golf is his main sport, anyway, when his back isn't acting up.

As he played pool, his wife's sister was in the administration office, inquiring about an apartment. She could end up at Oak Crest, the Parkville center Mr. Erickson opened recently, because there's a waiting list of 1,500 persons for Charlestown.

"My wife's crazy about it," Mr. Wall says of Charlestown. A "people person," she likes the company of so many fellow residents and likes "being independent," he said.

Not being able to drive because of glaucoma isn't a problem for her, he said, because Charlestown provides a shuttle bus for shopping and visits to the doctor.

The enormous success of Charlestown has Mr. Erickson and his associates contemplating a golden future.

"Basically, you could build a Charlestown-like facility every 30 miles from here to Boston," said Brian P. Froelich, president of Senior Campus Living. "The population is dense; there are a lot of older people."

The former executive vice president of American Express Co. was hired in 1994 to manage the company's growth, which received a huge boost earlier this year when an Equitable Life Assurance Society pension fund agreed to help underwrite development.

"They've built a better mousetrap," an Equitable executive said of the Charlestown model.

In addition to Charlestown and Oak Crest, the company has built a community in Dearborn, Mich., and is negotiating with New Jersey officials about a former IBM site in Franklin Lakes. Mr. Erickson said he also plans to develop a community in the Silver Spring area, and at other as-yet-undisclosed locations in other states.

But some experts wave a yellow caution flag.

"There are only a very limited number of markets around the U.S. that have a concentration of seniors" suitable for the Charlestown model, said Janet Henry. And while she said the company seems to have "very rosy prospects" for the next quarter-century, at some point the rapid growth of the 65-and-over population will taper off.

Duke University researchers recently predicted that the number of continuing care retirement communities would increase to 1,500, and house 450,000 people, in five years. The researchers also found from surveys that residents of these communities overwhelmingly are satisfied with them and remain healthier longer than other people of their age.

But the Duke team said the fees and deposits required by these communities are beyond the means of most older people. Only 5 percent to 15 percent have the wealth and income to "qualify unambiguously." If people stretched their budgets, "at most, 21 percent would qualify."

A retirement community's affordability depends on how it prices its services. Some, like Charlestown, charge a monthly fee that doesn't cover the cost of services such as nursing and assisted living, which can be paid for on an as-needed basis. Others charge a much higher monthly fee that covers any and all services a person might need. Still others may include a limited nursing-home benefit in the monthly charge.

The Duke researchers said some people may avoid these communities for fear of losing their deposits in the event the developer goes bankrupt. That hasn't happened often, however. The Maryland Office on Aging regulates these communities to ensure their solvency. No state resident has lost money.

John Erickson is optimistic. Charlestown and his earlier career in Florida have made him wealthy. A Republican who contributes heavily to the national party -- and who supported Democrat Parris N. Glendening for governor -- he sees virtue in the way his communities meet a societal need without government funding.

Communities like Charlestown, he said, are "going to become the ultimate answer" for aging Americans.


* Charlestown Retirement Community, Catonsville. Opened in 1983. Has 2,500 residents.

* Henry Ford Village, Dearborn, Mich. Opened in 1993. Will grow to more than 1,200 residents.

* Oak Crest Village, Parkville. Opened March 1. Will grow to 2,000 residents.

* Next projects:

* 2,300-resident, $250 million community in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

L * Project at unspecified location in the Washington suburbs.

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