Tar Heel of the Week

A family’s needs spawn a nonprofit retirement community in Cary

CorrespondentDecember 7, 2013 

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Bill Sears, 70, salvaged a tobacco storage barn, which is more than 100 years old, from his family’s property in Cary to build his SearStone senior living community. The 75 acre property, where he was born, dates back eight generations.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • William “Bill” Winston Sears

    Born: Feb. 7, 1943, in Cary

    Family: Wife, Rita; children, John David and Lisa Renee

    Career: Architect, Sears, Hackney, Keener & Williams Inc.

    Education: B.A and M.A., architecture, N.C. State University

    Hobbies: Oil painting, model building, saltwater fishing

    Fun fact: One of the many Cary stories Sears tells is about High House Road, which he says is named for a tall home that stood on a stone foundation near the road during the Civil War. Legend has it that when the husband didn’t return from the war, his wife hanged herself. The husband, who was injured, returned soon after to find her. He also hanged himself, leading the community to consider the house haunted. Sears said his grandfather would go miles to avoid passing the house because it spooked his horses.

— As an architect, Bill Sears has designed projects ranging from hospitals to churches to upgrades at the state Legislative Building.

But he never considered creating a retirement community until plans for Davis Drive had the road passing right through the family farmhouse where his elderly parents lived and where he and his mother were born.

For the past 15 years, Sears, 70, has been on a journey to build his ideal retirement community on the land where his family has lived for eight generations – personally overseeing matters large and small to create a home fit for his parents, now in their 90s, and he and his wife, who will also live there.

The result is SearStone, a nonprofit retirement community named for his parents’ families, who both have deep roots in the area.

Residents choose between lofts, condos or duplexes as large as 5,000 square feet, all laid out around a 4.5-acre lake and anchored by a clubhouse with restaurants and other amenities. After several setbacks over the years, the first 50 or so residents moved into the development in the past month.

The opening of SearStone is both a personal victory for Sears and a positive sign for the economy. It’s the first continuing care retirement community to open in Wake County since the recession, which delayed the project for years. This popular option combines resort-style living with on-site medical care that will accommodate people as young as 62 throughout their lives.

Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht notes that SearStone will provide needed housing for Cary’s aging population. More than 4,000 Cary residents turn 65 every year, he says, citing census data.

Weinbrecht first met Sears when Weinbrecht was on the town council in the early 2000s. Sears impressed him by taking on a road improvement project that went beyond what was required.

“I think he really cares about Cary,” Weinbrecht says. “You can tell when a person really cares about something, and they’re going to do everything they can to make it right. He’s had the intent all along to make this something special.”

A family’s deep roots

Sears’ family has been in the area since well before the Civil War. Family lore holds that his great-great-grandmother hid under her house near what is now Morrisville as Union soldiers marched by on their way to Raleigh.

Most of the family eventually settled near what is now the corner of High House Road and Davis Drive – two dirt roads when Sears was a boy, and now a bustling intersection.

Sears grew up fishing in the ponds on the farm and spent his summers harvesting and curing tobacco. His father, who worked as an investor and in the tobacco warehousing business, kept farming mainly to keep the kids out of trouble, Sears says.

He graduated from Apex High School hoping to be an aeronautical engineer, but switched to architecture, where he found a specialty working on medical facilities.

Sears has been involved in several projects at Duke Medical Center and WakeMed and has worked on emergency renovations to improve patient safety at Cherry Hospital, a state mental health facility in Goldsboro.

He has worked on dozens of churches, and on renovations at the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion. He has also been involved in civic life through the Jaycees, the chamber of commerce, his church and other venues.

All of this work helped him at SearStone, he says, teaching him both the ins and outs of medical facilities and how to work with a wide range of stakeholders.

“I think of all of that as a prelude to what I’m doing here,” Sears says. “It all came together quite nicely and accidentally.”

Sears and his family watched Cary grow up around them. Their land, once on its outskirts, became part of the town and now is near its geographic center. The family farm, while beloved, would clearly not last.

“By the time the town needed the road, it was obvious that it was time for something different,” he says.

A nonprofit model

His development of a retirement community came from thoughts about his parents, who would need a place to live. He had also served on the board of a nursing home and was frustrated by the options for retirement living at a time when so many people need them, particularly when their children live far away.

In 1998, he started traveling to retirement communities throughout the country looking for ideas.

“I literally spent four years collecting data and integrating those things that made them work well and extracting the things that were bad,” he says.

Gone, for instance, was the gated community, which Sears says isolates residents. Instead, SearStone is monitored by cameras, and residents can trigger alarms they wear on pendants.

The homes are laid out in a horseshoe around the lake, which is bordered by a wide paved walkway and will have fountains and a gazebo. The layout makes the community walkable, though golf carts can also be used.

Plans call for an adjacent hotel and retail, including a grocery store. The clubhouse is slated to have an indoor pool and wellness center, and Sears is working with the N.C. State College of Design to build an atrium.

“We want people to get up and have things to do,” he says. “We want you to be independent when you want to, maintain your dignity and retain your wealth.”

The project encountered several financial obstacles related to the recession, and also stirred some controversy in response to changes in the original plans. Plans call to eventually have 400 independent living and 100 health care units.

The entrance fee for residents is equal to the value of each home, starting at about $250,000. That fee is returned to residents’ estates, while the monthly fees they pay for meals, health care and other amenities are not. Plans, which vary, average $3,000 a month.

Sears’ family sold the land to the nonprofit, and he worked on the project as one of the architects. Now he serves as an adviser, monitoring its progress and reporting to its volunteer board. The details of construction and sales are handled by other companies.

The nonprofit will return 5 percent of its revenues to the community, to be used for indigent care for Wake County seniors.

“This is our legacy,” Sears says. “This is what we wanted to leave behind.”

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