By Gene Zaleski
Reprinted courtesy of The Times & Democrat
The sale of the Methodist Oaks retirement community to a private company has been finalized.
The Oaks of Orangeburg LLC has completed the acquisition with plans to further enhance services and make the community a destination for seniors and the Greater Orangeburg community.
"We are excited," The Oaks of Orangeburg Manager Clay Fowler said. "In the last almost year and a half, we have reworked the way things are done at The Oaks. The Oaks has an incredible history and so many people before us have done their part to build on folks before them."
The Methodist Oaks trustees agreed to sell the assets of the retirement community in June 2019 to The Oaks of Orangeburg LLC, an entity led by Fowler, owner and operator of Orangeburg's Longwood Plantation Assisted Living and Magnolia Place Memory Care. The Methodist Oaks had operated as an independent, non-profit corporation.
The sale was made due to financial challenges as the facility was about $17 million in debt. The sale amount was not disclosed.
"As the sale concludes, the Methodist Oaks won't have any debt left," Fowler said.
Fowler thanked the parties that have helped with the transition, including the Methodist Oaks board; the Methodist Conference; Orangeburg County and the Orangeburg County Development Commission.
"It is clear that Orangeburg loves The Oaks," Fowler said. "I can't tell you how many people contacted me over the last two years and said how much it meant to them and how glad they are that The Oaks is going to be there and that it will continue to be there in the future.”
To assist with the transition, the buyer assumed a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the sale. The purchase agreement was executed in August 2019 and the closing on the sale was expected in 2020.
Fowler said the delay until Wednesday's closing was due to COVID-19 as the application loan process from HUD was held up when the pandemic hit.
"Now that is behind us and it is out of COVID limbo," Fowler said.
Fowler said he was excited about the changes that have already occurred and that are planned for the Oaks going into the future.
Fowler said in many ways The Oaks "was sort of on an island" prior to the ongoing transition.
"The health care world is very different from the one that The Oaks started with," he said.
Fowler noted changes that have occurred.
"We increased the capability in the nursing home as far as what the organization can provide,” Fowler said. The nursing home can now provide residents with IV treatments and care for residents with tracheostomies.
The Oaks has also brought to the campus a geriatric medical practice, with doctors specializing in geriatric care. The geriatric group is in the facility full time all week.
The group of doctors and nurse practitioners is also doing house calls for independent and assisted-living residents. They have served the Longwood Plantation facilities for several years.
"We feel this is a tremendous acceleration in the medical care in the nursing home at The Oaks," Fowler said, noting it is not something that is otherwise available in the area. "We are trying to find ways that we can make things better for them."
Fowler said The Oaks also has a resident counsel with whom he will seek to meet regularly to get a better idea what they would like to see happen on campus.
He said The Oaks has already done a number of things such as a Mardi Gras event for residents and special meal nights.
Fowler said The Oaks will also look to invest capital into the campus, with plans to refresh, clean up and improve the aesthetics of buildings, specifically the Wesley Pines area consisting of duplexes. The Oaks of Orangeburg has committed to the county to invest at least $5 million over the next five years.
"There is a lot of work that needs to be done," Fowler said. "The community has tremendous bones. It is really a solid place and a beautiful place. It just needs some TLC."
He said one of the areas that will be sought to be improved will be the living arrangements in the independent living section of the campus.
"The Oaks is a place for people who are at different price points," Fowler said. "We are changing the model to either a lower entry fee required or no entry fee at all."
He said there will be something for everyone -- for those wanting a higher price point, a more affordable price point or a limited-budget price point.
"We will look for affordable housing for seniors and premium housing for seniors," he said.
Fowler said the grounds of The Oaks will also be cleaned up and appropriately maintained.
Fowler said The Oaks has also created some new jobs by doing away with agency staffing.
"We brought a therapy group in-house," Fowler said. "We created a bunch of jobs by doing that."
Fowler said the amount of employees at The Oaks has not changed significantly. He said some have shifted around but numbers have remained the same.
Another thing that has remained the same is PACE (Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. The program remains in place with all its components but will be purchased at a later date.
Fowler said COVID has been difficult for both the Oaks and Longwood.
He said during the height of pandemic, The Oaks set up a separate COVID unit in a wing of its nursing home. He said the unit helped to successfully prevent any further spread of the virus.
He praised the employees who have worked with COVID patients as "heroic."
"It has impacted the senior living industry tremendously," he said. "We are right now getting to the point where the campus and Longwood are opening back up."
He said visitation is starting to open back up and he says he foresees a time when the public will be able to once again come back to The Oaks on Sundays and have a dinner or brunch.
He also envisions the campus as the site for weddings and community events.
"The Oaks has the best fried chicken," Fowler said. “Just like the fried chicken at Longwood.”
Fowler is no stranger to health care.
His father was a hospital executive in the South and owned a nursing home while the young Fowler was in high school.
After receiving his master’s degree in business administration and master's in health care administration from Georgia State University, Fowler worked at a Healthsouth Rehab hospital and was a top executive at two hospitals in Texas.
He served Palmetto Health as an administrator of the Parkridge Surgery Center. He was also a hospital administrator in Lithonia, Georgia, at then-DeKalb Medical Hillandale, which is now part of Emory. Many of his hospital roles involved turning around troubled organizations.
The land The Oaks occupies once housed a World War II flying school: the Hawthorne School of Aeronautics.
The retirement community is situated on 650 acres and includes picnic and recreational areas, ponds and a golf course.
Formerly named The Methodist Oaks, the facility underwent a name change a few years ago and today is an independent, nonprofit corporation. It is not owned by the United Methodist Church.
By Gene Zaleski