Watermark Makes a Splash

By Lee Allen –

Visionary Senior Living


“Grab a hard hat and come check this out.”

The invitation comes from David Freshwater and his enthusiasm is contagious. Although he functions as chairman of Watermark Retirement Communities, a company that operates well over a billion dollars in assets, he’s also its hands-on developer. And even after retrofitting or coordinating new build operations at 39 properties in 20 states, developing a new project is still fun for him.

This property – The Hacienda at the River – is just the latest, with another already planned in Tucson near Sabino Canyon along with a joint-partnership in Marana.

“I’m kind of responsible for the creation side,” Freshwater said. “Then I hand things over to David Barnes, our President/CEO, and let him run things.”

They’ve been doing that duet dance since their first innovative senior living community – The Fountains at La Cholla – appeared in 1987.

The two Davids were able to find a quiet spot amidst the plasterers, painters, tile setters and a myriad of other construction workers at the job site, 2720 E. River Road, where they talked about the sleeping giant that Watermark Retirement Communities has been to this point and their latest innovations.

‘A very quiet company’

The company, headquartered in Tucson since its inception, owns or manages well over $1 billion in assets amongst their various property holdings and is the instrument that employs and manages more than 5,000 employees.

“We’ve been a very quiet company for the 30 years we’ve been in operation because we’ve conducted most of our business out of town,” Freshwater said. “Before announcing this property, hardly anyone knew much about Watermark. Now, because we’re expanding in the Tucson area, we decided it’s time to properly introduce ourselves.”

They anticipate a warm welcome based, at minimum, on their impact to the local economy – $137 million in new construction and more than 400 new permanent jobs over the next two years.

At the onset, Freshwater never intended to build an empire. “We were doing transactional development with lots of partners, buying existing communities and enhancing them. Now, it’s more development of new sites in the senior housing market. There was an initial intent to build a great company, but probably not to the extent we’re at today.”

And that extent continues to expand with the two other local sites ready to begin construction along with another property in California and other domestic locations as well as discussions of international development. “We’ve got three partners in China now,” said Barnes. “We’re lending the expertise of what we’ve learned here over the last three decades to see how it applies there. Ultimately, it’s likely that in three to five years, Watermark China will be larger than Watermark U.S.”

‘Creating communities where people thrive’

Corporate-wide their mission is to “create extraordinary communities where people thrive” – and they’re positive they’ve hit the mark with the Hacienda property. “All our communities are different,” Freshwater said. “We jokingly say that ‘when you’ve seen one Watermark community, you’ve seen ONE Watermark community.’ Each project presents its own unique challenges and opportunities.”

The Watermark team is excited about The Hacienda at the River, on the southern edge of the Catalina foothills, for a variety of reasons.

• First, the nearly eight-acre site itself, which was a vacant horse property and riparian retreat near the Rillito River and now embraces all the tradition and evolution the location has seen, along with majestic views of the Santa Catalina mountains. The land was purchased in late 2012 with groundbreaking a year later.

• Then, what is being put on that site on River Road at Hacienda del Sol Road, where thick adobe-style walls, sturdy vigas and tin-roof-covered porches look and feel like a Spanish colonial hacienda. This compound will encompass a 20,000-square-foot medical building, a two-story care facility, nursing and rehab facilities for short- and long-term stays, as well as four single-story buildings dedicated to assisted living and memory care. The contractors are taking pride in every nuanced detail.

Among the niceties, buildings will be interconnected by tree-lined pathways and interspersed with patios and shaded courtyards with orchards and gardens. “You go to some senior housing communities and there are a few raised planter beds with most of the crop dead,” said Freshwater.

Gardens, horses to enhance healing environment 

“Our goal is to have an experiential garden that when you enter the enclosed, screened, shaded area, you walk among the corn and peppers and flowers. It looks good. It smells good. And it makes you feel good. We’ll be producing some of our own vegetables and herbs – not to keep our kitchen going, but to augment it with local produce grown by staff and residents. It’ll be pretty special. For our residents with dementia, the smell of mint and rosemary might help trigger fond memories.”

Not only will there be radishes and rutabagas, there will be large animals with soft brown eyes – equines that are known to be therapeutic. Under the direction of therapy pioneer Barbara Rector, residents’ physical and emotional well-being will be enhanced by on-site equines available for interaction through touching and grooming.

“Not only is this place different in architecture, it’s also unique in its approach and philosophy, different from every other nursing home and rehab center in the country,” said Freshwater. “Other facilities continue to look like they’ve looked for decades – and there’s no good reason for that except for the convenience of those operating them. We’re convinced we can do things differently and, while still making a profit, put guests/patients/residents’ needs first.”

Their efforts have been recognized, both nationally and locally. The American Seniors Housing Association this year ranked Watermark among the nation’s 16 leading senior housing and care providers while the Tucson Metro Chamber honored them with a Copper Cactus Nextrio Innovation Award.

According to the company principals, once residents in senior facilities get beyond that hour or two of therapy or rehab services each day, there’s another 22 hours that isn’t programmed and amounts to warehousing.

‘Working with the best minds’ 

“There’s more to do on our campus than lie in bed watching TV. There’s something planned to happen every week, new things, new ideas with our partners. Our design here is akin to a boutique hotel with a variety of activity options,” Freshwater said. Barnes added, “It’s a much more comfortable, healing environment that eliminates the arcane design of a nursing station at the center of hallways. We have better technology today that gives us better patient connectivity, so we’ve designed our facility to include new modalities with the 21st century in mind.”

Barnes and Freshwater have been described as “passionate visionaries” whose minds don’t stop thinking about what can be done and how to do it. “A lot of our ideas are good in theory, but may be difficult to implement. It’s our challenge to figure out how,” one said. “Sometimes we have no idea how we’re going to pull things off and then, wham, the resources just show up,” the other added.

One example – they wanted to offer cooking classes, the cost of which would not be covered by Medicare. “One of our partners is the University of Arizona, so some of their grad students may come in to teach those classes,” Barnes said. The potential for collaboration with UA experts is great. It’s home to the Arizona Center on Aging, the College of Integrative Nursing, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine’s Institute on Place and Wellbeing. It’s a natural fit. “It’s all about creative solutions,” Freshwater said. “We are working with the best minds.”

Freshwater learned at an early age to take what he had and smartly parlay it into something bigger. In junior high school, he became a part of a band – not because he was a good musician, but because he owned a PA system that the band needed. “I wasn’t allowed near a microphone because I couldn’t sing, but they let me play guitar because I had the sound system.”

Years later, he’s still bargaining from a position of strength, building on decades of real-world field experience and a daring-do to be different, to try new things, trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently to make Watermark properties a pinnacle of retirement living.

“It’s not a brand that we focus on,” Barnes said. “We’re not like a hotel chain where you know what you’ll get at every one of their locations throughout the country. In the senior housing world, what’s far more important is local reputation based on the quality of service provided. That’s why we focus one-of-a-kind care in a one-of-a-kind place. Watermark communities have visionary programs where the freedom exists to put on a specific personality at each location.”

Already a Top 20 management company in their industry, Freshwater said, “Watermark is doing things that won’t just help us. What we experiment with and prove that will work can also help other facilities in other locations. If we have a good efficacy in what we’re doing here, we’re not going to keep it a secret. While our innovation makes Watermark communities stronger, it’s our intent to share that information to make our overall industry stronger, too.”

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