St. Mark's Towers fights funding challenges, misconceptions

·4 min read

Jan. 6—Soon after moving to Glynn County, Jenna Lightfoot asked what's located in the two towers overlooking the marsh just east of U.S. 17 across the highway's intersection with Parkwood Drive in Brunswick.

"I asked my husband, who had been here for years," she recalled.

"It's a nursing home or something," her husband replied. "I don't know what it is."

Lightfoot was asking about St. Mark's Towers, which provides affordable housing to residents who are at least 62 years old and who meet income limits set by HUD.

Lightfoot later joined the staff at St. Mark's Towers. That was in 2015. Today she serves as the executive director.

Many in the community continue to have misconceptions about St. Mark's Towers just as she did years ago.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, among those unenlightened about the towers, visited the apartment complex on Wednesday with two staff members to learn more about them.

They toured the two six-story towers, both of which were built decades ago, and met with board members to learn about some of the challenges St. Mark's Towers faces today.

"We are a HUD Section 8 202 property," Lightfoot explained at the start of the tour. "That means we're a nonprofit."

A major struggle is meeting the funding needs for capital projects, she said, due to HUD requirements, inflated prices and other limitations.

More than 150 men and women live in the towers. Many are local residents who could no longer afford to maintain their own property, Lightfoot said, but who have contributed to this community their entire lives.

St. Mark's is a self-sufficient independent living community. Each unit includes a bedroom, a full kitchen, a living and dining area and a bathroom.

Carter greeted residents in the common areas and took the tour, which passed by the in-house beauty salon, wellness room and activities room. Lightfoot also led the tour down a fifth floor corridor in the north tower to show off the fantastic marsh view afforded its residents.

Carter asked how the local misconception that St. Mark's is a for-profit nursing home affects its operations.

Lightfoot said the misunderstanding makes it hard to raise funds as a nonprofit.

During a meeting with board members Peter Schmidt and Bill Turner following the tour, Carter learned more about the challenges St. Mark's faces.

Ongoing repairs and maintenance are expensive, Turner said, sometimes costing in excess of $100,000. It's difficult to maintain the funds needed to keep up with the repair work that's needed, he said.

"We're at the point now (where) we can't fund our depreciation," he said. "... About every 15 years, you need about $2.5 million."

St. Mark's Towers is a local entity and hopes to stay that way, Schmidt said.

"One thing that's problematic for a setting like this is that we're really a community asset," he said. "We're not part of some conglomerate, and we get companies calling us all the time saying, 'We'll buy your property,' ... But you lose the community part of it."

St. Mark's Towers is working now with the city of Brunswick to hopefully secure federal funding that's available for the repair of damages caused by Hurricane Irma.

"We're fighting to keep this thing independent and local, and we really feel this obligation to the people who live here," Turner said.

St. Mark's Towers is also working to rebrand and seek more community funding and grant opportunities.

Kalista Morton joined the staff in November as the new director of development. She, too, was uninformed for many years about the exact nature of operations at St. Mark's Towers.

"I didn't realize this was a nonprofit until I interviewed to be here," she told Carter during the tour. "I always thought that it was senior living."

Before leaving, Carter promised that his staff would begin researching ways to address some of the facility's challenges.

He also joked that like others, he was very much mistaken about St. Mark's Towers.

"I guess I (take) the cake," he said. "I thought it was a cell tower."

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