Bethesda Lutheran Communities plans to transform its campus

Real Estate

Bethesda Lutheran Communities was founded in 1904 to care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 04:56 pm

Bethesda Lutheran Communities Inc. is preparing for a massive overhaul of its Watertown campus, with plans to raze 11 buildings, some more than 100 years old.

Once the building demolition is complete the nonprofit, which cares for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, will have cleared more than 200 acres of its 400-acre property in the hopes of selling the land to a developer.

Bethesda Lutheran Communities is located on 400 acres in Watertown, including almost 50 acres of Rock River waterfront access.

The project comes after Bethesda officials spent more than two years trying to determine the best use for the buildings, which are no longer occupied.

The last resident moved out of the Watertown facilities (usually into nearby group homes) nearly three years ago, and the existing buildings have become obsolete, said Mike Thirtle, president and chief executive officer of Bethesda. 

Since that time, the facilities have remained relatively unused, but the maintenance costs have continued to increase, Thirtle said.

“It costs us $1.4 million to keep the lights, heat and water on at the facility,” Thirtle said. “The amount of maintenance will only continue to increase for an old building of this size and age.”

In the spring, all of the Watertown staff members were relocated to the corporate office building at 600 Hoffmann Drive, which is one of the few buildings on its campus that Bethesda does not plan to tear down.

The buildings that made up the residential campus were moved into an efficiency state and Bethesda maintained only the necessary electrical and water systems to support emergency response.

“The buildings simply have no future use for Bethesda, and those resources could be focused directly on the delivery of supports and services,” Thirtle said.

Before Bethesda’s board of directors voted last month to tear down the buildings and redevelop the land, the organization tried to sell the property.

There were more than 20 different discussions with various groups from Milwaukee to Madison, including St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy, real estate developers and government agencies, about buying or leasing the buildings.

Bethesda Lutheran Communities was founded in 1904 to care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“There is just no demand for repurposing this type of facility given its size, its age, the availability of other real estate options and the capital investment needed to repurpose the space,” Thirtle said.

The decision by Bethesda to raze the aging properties and redevelop the land, which includes 48 acres along the Rock River, will better position the nonprofit for its future, he said.

The organization is already in talks with the city of Watertown about the possibilities this could create for the community, which is located halfway between Milwaukee and Madison in Dodge and Jefferson counties on Highway 26.

Bethesda was founded in Watertown in 1904. Today, Bethesda’s corporate headquarters remains in Watertown and the organization’s mission stretches across 13 states. Bethesda employs about 3,000 people.

Watertown Mayor John David said he has known for a long time this is a good opportunity for Bethesda and, potentially, a developer. David said he expects to know more about the future of the property in about six months.

“We would like some private development that will be quality and add to the tax base and be good for the neighborhood,” David said. “There are possibilities. Bethesda will be making those decisions. They have indicated that they want to work with the city and we want to work with them. I am not sure where they are headed, except they need to get the land cleared.” 

Bethesda leaders will soon begin creating a comprehensive redevelopment plan. Demolition of the buildings is expected to begin this fall. 

“We think returning the site to a greenfield will improve the chances of developers taking a new look,” Thirtle said.

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