Health Care

Liberty developer envisions people young, old and disabled exercising, living side by side

Steve Shields has a very specific vision for the Aurora Health and Wellness Center, the anchor of the Norterre assisted-living and apartment complex set to open this fall in Liberty.

It’s a senior citizen walking on a treadmill next to a young athlete training for a marathon, who is next to a stroke survivor who’s rehabbing after being partially paralyzed.

Shields, Norterre’s chairman and managing partner, wants there to be a living space for each of them at the “healthy living community” being built on 17 acres next to Liberty Hospital.

“I think what’s going to be the unifier here is that I think people of all ages are attracted to the idea of … lifestyles that promote well-being,” Shields said.

With the opening of Norterre’s sales center Friday, Shields and his partners are about to find out who will buy in.

Memberships to the wellness center will run at $69 per month for individuals and $109 for families, including individuals up to age 22 who live at home. Memberships will be discounted for seniors at $59 for individuals and $79 for couples. Prices for the apartments have not yet been set, but Norterre is taking reservations with a $1,000 deposit.

As a former retirement community executive in Manhattan, Kan., Shields and others pioneered a “household model” in the 1990s that pushed nursing homes to become less like institutions and more like homes.

Shields said Norterre is the next step: integrating those homes into communities with people of all ages.

“The thing that always bothered me about the way we do retirement communities is it’s still removed,” Shields said. “It can be great; it can have really cool stuff, but it’s still all people of the same profile living removed.”

So Shields’ company, Action Pact, is partnering with the hospital and the Iowa-based company Healthy Living Centers of America to create a neighborhood from scratch.

Though there will be senior living there, Shields said “that’s not the definer.

“They just happen to be the first ones moving to town, so to speak,” Shields said.

Shields said the community will instead be built around the wellness center, which will be open to the public as well as hospital patients and assisted-living residents.

“I’m as apt to be doing yoga with somebody that’s 22 or a 42-year-old mom with three kids who’s got their kids in the child care center on campus while she’s doing it,” Shields said. “I’ve got all these services, I’ve got everything that I need, but I’m not removed. That excites me about this. I love that concept.”

The first phase of the $66 million project is set to open in November and will include assisted-living and skilled-nursing units for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as short-term rehabilitation suites for people recovering from illness or injury. The plan is to include independent living apartments for all ages in a second phase.

Kathy Greenlee, a former U.S. assistant secretary of aging in the Obama administration, got to know Shields when she was the Kansas secretary of aging and Shields was running the Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community. She said other people are trying to do parts of what Shields is proposing as far as community integration, but Shields is “on the leading edge.”

But with any innovations in senior care, Greenlee said the key questions are always about sustainability and finances.

“It will first be delivered to people who can afford it,” Greenlee said. “What about people with lower incomes?”

Shields said skilled-nursing units will be available to people on Medicaid. Health insurance will cover rehab services, and he’s confident young families and corporations will buy enough memberships to keep the wellness center going.

The wellness center, Shields said, will be the centerpiece that draws people of all ages and abilities to live together.

“So instead of the county courthouse being in the town square that unifies the town, the unifier of this is going to be the place and the people that are totally organized around you being a greater you,” Shields said.

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso