Aug. 30--ALBANY -- A pall hangs over the housing units of the Seasons Christian Care Center at 2724 Ledo Road these days. For the 100 or so elderly residents of the gated retirement community, uncertainty and dread have replaced the tranquility and joy they sought when they bought into the concept of the 148-unit Christian-based village.
Beset by financial woes that ran into the millions of dollars, Seasons Christian was part of a bankruptcy auction sought by Lamad Ministries, the controlling arm of the retirement neighborhood, and its principles, William and Eric Eidenire, to stave off mounting debt.
Now the residents, many of them in their 80s and 90s and out tens of thousands of dollars in loans and ministry deposits made with the promise of timely repayment, await word of their future at Seasons Christian. Entrepreneur Mike Bowden paid $3.905 million for the 148 housing units and has indicated he wants to renovate them and rent them at market rate. He reportedly will give current residents first opportunity to occupy the apartments.
"Mr. Bowden has said he'd like for everyone who's currently living in those units to stay there," Albany attorney Patrick Flynn, who represented a Seasons Christian "Unsecured Creditors Committee" during the Lamad bankruptcy proceedings, said. "I can't speak for all the residents, but I know a lot of them want to stay. Some of them have been at Seasons Christian for quite a while and are comfortable there. Plus, frankly, a lot of them are too old to move.
"It's really sad how this turned out for some of our most vulnerable citizens. It doesn't take a law degree to know people were done wrong here."
BUILDING A DREAM
Eidenire left his position as an assistant pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church with a dream of building a Christian-based retirement community for a rapidly growing senior population.
"I participated in a lot in senior activities (at Sherwood), and they kept telling me they needed a place to go," Eidenire said in a 2007 interview with The Albany Herald. "Then I actually went to their homes, and those homes were deteriorating. They were living in one or two rooms in a three- or four-bedroom house."
So, Eidenire pitched his idea of a senior Christian retirement village to a group of investors and board members who facilitated the purchase of property on which to build the pastor's dream. Construction started on the first phase of what would become Seasons Christian on Nov. 25, 1989. By June of 1990, 16 units -- built for $1.099 milion -- were ready for occupancy.
"The business plan (Eidenire) put in place worked for about 20 years," Albany attorney Walter Kelley, appointed as Lamad's corporate lawyer during the recent bankruptcy proceedings, said. "But they ran into a perfect financial storm a few years back. The housing market crashed, the housing units had aged and were in need of repair, and there just wasn't a large enough market of potential buyers. Plus, management had paid a lot of money to defend themselves against claims by residents, and the bad publicity from those episodes hurt marketing efforts."
The business model Kelley spoke of initially called for residents to pay "ministry deposits" equal to half the value of the housing units. Six hundred-square-foot single bedroom units were valued at $35,000 and 1,050-square-foot two-bedroom units at $60,000. Monthly "living expense" payments were calculated based on the balance owed on the units.
The agreement signed by residents, though, stipulated that fees were 100 percent refundable in the event that residents moved or to their estate if they died.
During discovery meetings with Eidenire, Kelley said the man affectionately known by Seasons Christian residents as "Brother Bill" told him Lamad had returned more than $3 million in deposits for remarketed housing units.
SIGN OF TROUBLE
But around 2006, just before the worldwide recession came crashing down, residents started to complain about rising costs and shoddy maintenance. Led by World War II veteran Sam Spivey, a group of residents initially balked at paying maintenance fees when they were doubled from $200 to $400. The residents were also concerned that Eidenire, now joined in the venture by his son Eric, had sold an adjacent section of land along Ledo Road that became a strip mall.
"I only know what (Eidenire) told me, and he said he sold the land for the strip mall for $800,000 to pay off debt," Kelley said.
Starting in 2007, Spivey and other residents filed complaints with the Department of Labor, the state insurance commissioner's office and the fire marshal. The resulting publicity and attorneys' costs pushed Lamad and the Eidenires deeper into debt.
"William Eidenire had an interest in us at one time, but now this place is nothing but a business to him and his family," resident Eugene Armstrong told The Herald in January 2007.
Later that year, Spivey was arrested for trespassing, and by the end of the year dispossessory action was taken against the then-82-year-old for some $5,400 in fees that Seasons Christian officials said Spivey owed.
Not all residents supported Spivey's and others' efforts to discredit the Eidenires.
"My mother actually liked living there; she was convinced that it was one of the best options for her," David Clark, an Albany native who is now a clinical psychologist just outside St. Louis, said of his mother, Martha Clark. "Now that she's gone, I don't think she would have minded so much the unpaid ministry deposit. I think she kind of looked on it as a contribution.
"I pointed out to her that her contract called for 85 percent of the money she'd paid in deposits (which in total surpassed $150,000) was to be returned to her if her unit was sold, but it was never sold. There was really no talking to her about it anyway. And while I admit that I didn't go over the paperwork in great detail, it initially struck me as not that bad a deal."
But Clark said his opinion changed when he sought repayment of a $42,000 ministry deposit made by his mother.
"That was written up as a two-year loan that came due in 2007," David Clark said. "I asked for the money, and they asked if I would wait another six months. At the end of that six months, they kept putting me off and finally told me they couldn't repay the loan. I've never been able to quite figure out if they were thieves or fools. In the end, it hurt my mom to know I would be out $150,000 of my inheritance for, at minimum, incompetence."
While the accepted version of the Lamad Ministries/Seasons Christian decline is built around catastrophic financial factors and possible management issues, there are those who say William Eidenire's plans to build an Oral Roberts-like Christian-based empire was his undoing.
One former employee, who asked that his name not be used in this article, said Eidenire had "delusions of grandeur" when it came to his plans for his ministry.
"Brother Bill talked with me about a 'media empire' he planned to build around his ministry," the former employee said. "He said he planned to have two TV stations, two or three radio stations, to publish a magazine and a weekly newspaper, and he planned to build a huge prayer chapel.
"I thought all that was well beyond his reach, but he spoke with all the confidence of a man who planned to pull it off. If you talked with him long enough, it was easy to believe that he could make it happen. In reality, though, it was nothing but delusions of grandeur. He thought he was going to be the next Jim Bakker or Oral Roberts."
Nonette Johnson, who worked as office manager at Seasons Christian for 19 years, found herself caught between her loyalty to the Eidenire family and the residents who often confided in her as the retirement center's finances started to unravel.
"I understand that the residents see this from their personal perspective, but multiple things brought this on," Johnson said of Seasons Christian's downfall. "It's not entirely management's fault. The actions of some of the residents played a big part in this.
"It's a sad thing for everyone involved. What's really sad is that Seasons Christian will not continue to be a Christian ministry. That doesn't mean, though, that it can't still be a Christian community. I believe I'm still here because God has a purpose for me here."
What that purpose might be will depend on the new owner. Certainly the element of determining pro rata shares of unsecured claims against Seasons Christian will be an important part of the community's business future. After a little more than $3 million in secured debt is paid off, a liquidating agent will determine how much of the roughly $1.1 million left from the bankruptcy auction will go to residents and estates that filed unsecured claims against Seasons Christian.
Kelley said residents can expect from 4 percent to 8 percent of the amounts of the roughly 160 claims made against the ministry seeking repayment of deposits and loans, many of which surpassed $100,000. Flynn said he expects the return to be "somewhere around 9 percent." The claims total slightly less than $9.7 million.
"Some of them will, I believe, be denied," Kelley said. "It's not my decision to make, but I can't imagine that Sam Spivey would be reimbursed for legal fees he's trying to claim. And some of the claims ... well, you can see for yourself."
Among the claims is one for $151,000 filed by Eidenire himself and another for $24,550 filed in his name. There is also a claim for $63,637.29 filed by former Dougherty County District Attorney Ken Hodges for legal fees.
While many among the current Seasons Christian residents await court action and news from the community's new owner to determine their future, more than a few are angry. One said at a recent meeting, "The Eidenires -- or at least Brother Bill -- used to care for us. Then it started being about the money."
Clark laments his lost inheritance, but he is more angry over an assessment shared by family members of many other residents: that his mother was taken advantage of.
"These people hurt my mother," the psychologist said. "They betrayed her. The religious part of this whole thing was, I believe, a farce. There wasn't a ...damned thing religious about that place. It was an apartment complex."
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