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The Brothers of Mercy left the city for the suburbs decades ago to build a little nursing home and ended up creating one big campus for senior living.

It’s about to get even bigger.

The religious order plans to soon build senior residential housing, but its approach will drive deeper than that. The Brothers of Mercy look to partner in a primary care medical office and dental clinic on the grounds and would like to see the Clarence Senior Center move onto the site as well. They’ve also begun to forge closer relationships with two local colleges to help plan the expansion and fill future jobs on the order’s campus.

“We’re looking to put together a senior center of excellence, not just a place to come when you’re sick, but a place to come to live and be active,” said Peter Eimer, chief operating officer of the Brothers of Mercy.

Plans include:

• An $18 million, 111-unit independent living facility for active seniors. “Inside the common areas, there is going to be a bistro, a restaurant, a theater, a chapel with a separate adoration area – which is really important to Catholics – and a little grocery store,” Eimer said. Like all projects on the campus, the facility will be open to those of all faiths. Construction would start in March and take about a year, with the opportunity to add up to 36 more apartments and 80 assisted-living beds.

• A University at Buffalo dental clinic, which would help train dentists while providing care to the growing number of seniors on the campus.

• Closer cooperation between the brothers and the UB School of Nursing and D’Youville School of Pharmacy, again for both training and service.

In addition, Eimer and the brothers are in talks with a doctors’ group about bringing a primary and immediate care center, open to the campus and larger community.

There also has been talk about moving the Clarence Senior Center to the property.

“That’s just in the preliminary study stages, but that would be a real active situation and a win-win,” Eimer said. “For us, we’d get to show off our campus for potential future residents, and for them, they’re always looking to increase their membership. If we have the apartments built, the residents there can join the Senior Center. And I think we can save the Town of Clarence with some expenses, so it’d be good for Clarence taxpayers.”

Since the 1950s, the Brothers of Mercy have offered a growing collection of services at Bergtold and Ransom roads south of Clarence Center on 126 acres – a size that makes it “coincidentally, the same acreage as the Vatican,” Eimer said, with a smile.

Today, the campus includes a 240-bed skilled-nursing and rehabilitation center; 100 fully occupied apartments for low- to moderate-income seniors; and the 70-bed Sacred Heart Home, which offers an intermediate level of care for seniors who prefer that others handle their shopping, cooking, yard work and medication management.

Eimer and the brothers have spent the past several years brainstorming ways to provide more services to the growing legion of retirees expected to live in Western New York in coming decades.

The percentage of Erie County residents 65 and older will climb from 15.7 percent three years ago to 18.1 percent by 2020 and to 20 percent by 2025, according to the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

At this point, the proposed apartment project is gaining steam – and support.

“I think it’s a great project,” said Clarence Supervisor David C. Hartzell Jr. “There are lots of new, single-family homes in Clarence. The one thing we don’t have is a lot of new, up-to-date and modern places for seniors to live.”

In fact, Hartzell said, the 125 senior apartments currently being built by Clover Management Inc. at 8040 Roll Road, near Transit Road, is probably the first new senior housing in the town in more than 15 years.

The Brothers of Mercy project, meanwhile, is scheduled to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals tonight for a variance on the town’s height restriction.

A public hearing is expected early next year, before the Town Board decides on granting a special-exemption use permit needed for the Brothers of Mercy apartments.

“I don’t think it will be a problem at all. We’re excited about it,” Hartzell said. “From everybody I’ve talked to, they’re in favor of it. It’s such a beautiful area for someone to retire to. I’m glad we have it in Clarence.”

The overall Brothers of Mercy proposal would create a campus that rivals that of the Gates Circle project unveiled last month, when Kaleida Health announced plans for an urban campus with continual care, including 55 units of senior citizen housing and another 500 market-rate apartments and townhouses in the future. With existing and planned buildings, the brothers also could have more than 500 residents on their grounds in the next decade, though many more would be in nursing beds than at Gates.

Brothers of Mercy currently has more than 240 full-time, more than 150 part-time and about 160 per-diem workers.

The senior apartments would be constructed by Matrix Development and Regent Construction north of the existing campus buildings.

“Those are going to be nice, premier apartments,” Eimer said. “They’re independent, but for people who probably don’t want to cook and shop. You get all your food and activities, you get transportation to doctors’ offices. It’s going to be more like a hotel.”

The initial plan is for 75 two-bedroom and 36 one-bedroom apartments. Rents will be about $2,600 to $3,100 per month.

Eimer, an assistant professor at D’Youville, said that student interns from the school and UB already play a role in patient care on the Clarence campus but that broader approaches are under discussion.

“We’d like to do more classes,” he said, “and we’ve had a classroom built.”

The brothers also are working with the UB School of Nursing to determine how they can help with the school’s six-year nurse practitioner program.

“With us being more research-oriented, it’s going to put us in a different light in the community,” Eimer said of a facility traditionally thought of simply as providing senior housing.

He also admitted such partnerships will be vital for a nonprofit senior care campus facing cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance reimbursements.

“We always want the brand to be Brothers of Mercy,” Eimer said, “but we can see D’Youville, the University at Buffalo and the Town of Clarence all having activity on the campus.

“Today, I don’t think you can make it without working with other people.”

Coming Saturday: Learn more about Peter Eimer’s role at Brothers of Mercy in WNY Refresh email: sscanlon@buffnews.com jrey@buffnews.com