In 1997, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church bought land just south of its sanctuary with an idea of one day using it to serve to the community. For years, it went unused, except as a wooded campsite for the church’s Boy Scout troop.
Then a decade ago, church leaders under former senior pastor, the Rev. Mike Bailey, began developing a long-range vision for a “senior campus” on the roughly 23 acres. Now, the final pieces of that plan are falling into place.
In August, the church won rezoning for 9.7 acres to allow construction of a new senior ministry center and about 104 units of senior housing across Mt. Zion Parkway from Autumn Care. That 102-bed skilled nursing home opened in January on 12 acres also leased from the church.
Autumn Care, a privately operated nursing home, has about 70 residents, about 45 of them long-term and the remainder short-term patients for rehabilitation.
Likewise, the senior center and housing, which would be developed over the next few years, are aimed at a growing and underserved population in the area, people older than 55.
When Mt. Zion leaders first began drawing up their plans, “There was very much of a need for housing for 55 and older,” said Barbara Broadway, who serves on a church committee overseeing the project.
The senior campus expansion is less about growing the church and more about serving Cornelius, said the Rev. Mary John Dye, Mt. Zion’s senior pastor.
“It’s our way to give back to the community. I think that was the vision at the heart of it from the beginning. Mt. Zion has been an anchor place in the community for nearly 200 years,” Dye said.
Church needs a senior center
A key part of the plan is a 6,000-square-foot senior ministry center, which will accommodate existing church groups, classes and programs.
The senior center would be built either by the church itself or in partnership with a developer. It would have space for Bible study groups, exercise classes and other meetings, as well as a kitchen and dining space for meals and functions.
“The vision was that the senior ministry center would free up space down in our Family Life Center,” Broadway said. “It’s something that we think is going to be received really well. … It is not just for Mt. Zion. It is (for) the community.”
The church was founded in Cornelius in 1827 and has been in downtown Cornelius since 1835. It has expanded several times, adding the education building in 1961 and the Family Life Center in 1990.
The church still has work to do before it can bring the final phase of its senior campus to fruition, but leaders say they’ve gotten past the major hurdles – site planning and design and town and county approvals.
The big question is when the housing might get built. The church still is seeking a partner – an investor-developer – to build and manage the housing. Plans approved by the town in August call for 24 independent living duplexes and quadplexes as well as a four-story, 80-unit senior apartment building.
Mt. Zion has been working with a Raleigh-based engineer, Don Curry, to design the project, and consulting developer, Alan Rice, who has helped put the project together. They put out a call for developers, and the church so far has received just one response, Broadway said.
The church is in discussions with that potential developer, whom Broadway would not name. It’s also possible another developer could enter the picture. “This is not something we expect to have done in the next two weeks,” she said.
Dye said she wishes she had an answer for those inquiring about when they might be able to move in: “We wish we knew. When we get a developer, we will have a much clearer picture of that.”
Seniors like Cornelius
Cornelius has become a popular destination for elders, including empty-nesters and retirees. While other projects focus on single-family homes for purchase, Mt. Zion’s project would fill an unmet need for senior rental housing, the church officials say.
“We’re seeing a lot of people, senior citizens, moving to the area following their children,” said Broadway, a church member with a background in real estate. “They don’t have a need to have ownership any more, so rental is fitting in with a lot of people’s lifestyles now.”
She noted the Mt. Zion project would be close to shops, restaurants and the new Harris Teeter under construction in the nearby Antiquity Cornelius.
Cornelius Planning Director Wayne Herron said Mt. Zion’s senior campus plans are a good fit in town. “We’re excited about this – age-restricted housing is our most popular request right now,” Herron said.
He said the Mt. Zion senior housing could help some elder residents remain in town. “You don’t want your long-term residents, who’ve given to the community and continue to give, to move to Davidson or Huntersville. Anything we can do to keep them here, that’s just a positive,” Herron said.
David Boraks is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org