Chris Flora, Special to The Explorer | Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 4:00 am
If in 1987 you asked David Freshwater and David Barnes if by 2017 they thought they’d be managing 39 retirement communities nationwide—and now creating one of their very own state of the art facilities in Tucson—you might get a laugh.
“Senior housing at that time was sort of an obscure and esoteric kind of product,” Freshwater says.
But that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished since teaming up to run the Fountains at La Cholla nearly three decades ago, which ironically sort of happened by accident.
When Freshwater, who has degrees in architecture and business, took on development of the Fountains—one of the region’s first senior housing projects—he had no intention of running it. But thanks to the infancy of the industry and the lack of third party operators, Freshwater would create a team to do just that.
“The industry by and large learned by trial and error. No one knew what they were doing,” Freshwater says. “We were feeling our way through it, doing the things we thought were right, making mistakes, but going with our gut instincts and educational background.”
It was around that time Barnes, with a degree in management information systems, had begun his ascent through the Fountains company, first operating as an operation trouble shooter and eventually working his way to becoming senior vice president of operations and president and CEO by 2001.
By 2005, Freshwater and Barnes had acquired enough properties to become a top-25 senior housing company in the nation, and by June 30 of the same year, the Fountains was acquired by Sunrise Senior Living for approximately $500 million, one of the largest transactions in history related to the senior housing industry.
The next day, literally, Barnes and Freshwater were back at it, picking up contracts and landing new operation and development deals under what would eventually become Watermark – today a top 13 company in the industry with 39 communities under its belt.
Unlike the ground-up development of the soon-to-open Hacienda at the River, Barnes and Freshwater have spent the majority of their careers taking on contracts to flip, own and operate failing senior housing projects, turning them into stable and successful business models.
Seeing what did and didn’t work over the years brought with it huge benefits when the duo decided to create the Hacienda at the River. Even still, the model of Hacienda brings with it a unique vision, which veers from what Barnes and Freshwater say might be not expected of some traditional senior housing facilities.
“That’s been one of the advantages of being around this industry for 30 years, is that when we decided to open Hacienda at the River, we were able to hit the ground running,” says Barnes. “This is a real treat because we can create the culture. We can build the design the way we want it to be rather than trying to retrofit.”
Once a dude ranch and later a stable, Barnes and Freshwater have aimed at keeping the property true to its roots. To do so, they have created a space that will boast a rich riparian habitat and make use of an equestrian setting. Not only will this have a soothing effect on residents, research has shown the use of horses beneficial to those suffering from dementia. As such, the project will include a horse stable and an integrated equestrian and hippotherapy programs. Going one step further, Barnes and Freshwater have teamed with the University of Arizona to allow student fellowships and promoting studies to evaluate the degree to which horses impact symptoms of certain diseases like dementia. Residents who own horses will be able to board them on site for visits as well.
“From my understanding, this just isn’t something that’s really being done across the nation,” Freshwater says. “But it will serve to help us not only help with the feel and the comfort of the facility residents, but to potentially help evaluate clinical outcomes of such a setting.”
Along with this, the 7.9-acre property, which includes centers for rehabilitation and skilled nursing, memory care, hospice care, assisted living memory care, and assisted living, will include gardens and trees throughout, tin roofs to capture the soothing sound of rain, a therapy pool and spa, café, dining rooms and courtyards.
The idea is to capture the feel of home or a boutique hotel rather than that of a nursing home.
“This marks 30 years of best practices across the nation. What drives us is being extraordinary, creating an environment where residents thrive, and that’s a constant theme.”
And based on one story, that vision has been executed to perfection. “We had a prospect’s daughter come in to look at the community,” Barnes describes. “She kept talking about her mom’s medical needs, and the sales person said, “I understand that, but tell me about your mom—what your mom likes doing. What are her passions? What are her hobbies and interests? The daughter’s defenses went down. She’d gotten so focused on her mom’s clinical needs—which are important, and we’ll take care of that, but she was almost in tears once we broke it down to that level.”
“That’s what this is about for us—getting to a place where we have great care, good food, but that’s not what energizes us. It’s what that person is passionate about. That’s our core belief.”
Located at 2720 E. River Road, the facility is scheduled to open its various designations in increments between mid-February and May. More information on the Hacienda at the River can be obtained at www.watermarkcommunities.com or by calling 729-1009 to schedule a visit.