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

April 30, 1995|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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