Plumas County Community Development Commission Executive Director David Keller told his board at a Tuesday, March 17, meeting that he recently received a pleasant surprise in the form of a U.S. Department of Agriculture memo, which he took as a sign the Wildwood Village project would move forward.
Keller said the memo indicated that USDA Rural Development would be willing to allow Almanor Residential Incorporated to sell a section of Wildwood to the commission, as part of the commission's effort to consolidate the project and turn it into an affordable housing complex for seniors with low-income or disabilities.
In a telephone interview Chester area Supervisor Sherrie Thrall gave a quick history of Wildwood Village, located in downtown Chester.
Thrall indicated the Wildwood saga was very complicated and had been going on for quite some time, with many events occurring before she was even in office.
She said various parts of Wildwood were built with USDA loans and state bond money, with two different USDA departments involved in different housing developments in the complex.
Thrall said one section of Wildwood was originally intended for affordable housing for seniors, similar to the direction the entire project is moving now. The other two parts were for market rate and assisted living senior housing.
She said those second two sections never succeeded in attracting enough residents to be solvent.
The supervisor said the assisted living section probably failed because it took nearly 10 years to build and people's preferences shifted to remaining in their own homes during that time.
Thrall said the affordable housing section and senior center building, used by the Senior Nutrition Program in Chester, were much more successful, causing the CDC to decide that the whole complex might work out if it were all focused on that type of housing.
Recent CDC meetings have featured reports of sizable waiting lists for that type of housing, which would seem to support the feasibility of the plan.
The supervisor explained the new path led the CDC to ask both USDA departments involved in the project to write down the debt incurred by Almanor Residential, a nonprofit created to run Wildwood, which was never successful enough to pay off the federal construction loans.
Thrall said the project would also involve remodeling the assisted living units to be more appealing to independent seniors.
Back at the CDC meeting, Keller told the board he had begun to lose hope that the USDA would approve the attempt to revive the facility and make it solvent.
"Things looked a little grim for a while and we kind of had some heartburn on whether this was really going to happen right up to yesterday," he said.
He explained the CDC hadn't received official word that one of the branches of the USDA would approve the project, but he received a memo from a USDA employee that was originally sent from the Department of Agriculture administrator in Washington, D.C., to the state director in California approving the sale.
Keller said he was very relieved because this part of the project would have been the most costly to start over.
CDC Board Secretary and Finance Director Tom Yagerhofer attributed the memo to the efforts of the new USDA state director Glenda Humiston, who "got on the horn and said, 'why are you taking forever to do this? This stuff was turned in six months ago, and (she) apparently got some action."
"So we're going to send a very nice thank you to Glenda because apparently she was the one that finally got somebody in D.C. to pay attention to this," Keller added.
Both CDC employees agreed there was still much work to be done on the project, but they were optimistic because it seemed unlikely that one department of USDA would agree to the sale without the cooperation of the other, as both sides knew about each other's involvement in the proposal.
Keller placed his hand on the document he was so pleased about with a slightly sublime look on his face and told the board, "I still kind of can't believe I'm looking at this memo..."
Thrall, who had been eagerly awaiting news on the project at each CDC meeting for months, also displayed a mix of relief and disbelief as she interjected, "I think we should frame it or something."
Keller: "I tell you, it is unbelievable."
Yagerhofer: "Well, we called our rep to ask her if this was real."
Keller: "Yeah, I thought this maybe was a cruel April Fool's joke early."
Yagerhofer: "She sent it to us as a courtesy under the title of: 'I'm trying out our new scanner.'"
That last comment led to an eruption of laughter from the commissioners, followed by Keller's explanation that he coincidentally had a meeting scheduled with the Almanor residential board that afternoon.
"So we'll have much more happy news than we had intended to talk to them about today."
Keller began to wind down the topic by reading a few sentences from the memo.
"We have determined that it's in the best interest of the government to sell the property to PCCDC.
"This course of action will provide needed multi-family housing services to the area and will provide the least amount of disruption to the operation of the facility."
"I think that does sum it up. So we are unbelievably happy, and as I said we didn't think this day would come," Keller added.
"The amount of financial commitment that USDA Rural Development is putting into this project is tremendous," he concluded.
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