PAOLA — The new owners of the former Ursuline Sisters grounds in Paola have plans to turn the campus into a drug rehab facility.

Paola City Council members learned the details of the plans during a work session Tuesday, Aug. 3, attended by Robert Olivarez, vice president of operations for Flashpoint Recovery, which soon will be rebranded as Arista.

Olivarez, who lives in Texas, said he is currently in Paola at the former Ursuline Motherhouse for three days every other week while renovations take place and crews work to get the facility ready for operation.

Olivarez told the council members he was there representing the larger ownership group GMF Capital, which purchased the entire 36-acre Ursuline campus earlier this year. Olivarez said the primary owner of the group has residences in Miami and New York City, while other board members are spread among other states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Olivarez said the Ursuline campus was attractive to investors because the Motherhouse already had 40 rooms available, and their research showed there is a need in the area for people dealing with substance abuse disorders.

“Every eight minutes somebody overdoses and dies,” he said. “There’s plenty of people who need help.”

After communicating with officials at Miami County Medical Center, Olivarez said he learned that some people are sent from the hospital to treatment facilities in St. Louis and other cities farther away.

“We got lucky finding the Ursuline Academy,” Olivarez said. “It’s a beautiful place. I’m at peace there; I really feel it is a place of healing. I think this facility is tailor-made for the work we plan to do.”

The initial plan was to open Sept. 5, but Olivarez said those plans have been delayed, and now the plan is for a soft opening in November, followed by a grand opening around the first of the year.

The owners quickly discovered what happens when a building of that size is left vacant for over a decade.

“We fired up the air conditioners and turned on the boilers, and stuff started breaking right away, which is to be expected,” Olivarez said.

Crews recently have been working on painting and flooring, and the nurse’s station on the third floor is being modernized, Olivarez said.

The plan is to have a full nursing staff, Olivarez said, including a 24-hour nurse practitioner. He added that the facility likely will have at least 40 staff members to start with, but there could be close to 130 at maximum operation.

“That’s a lot of jobs,” he said.

Olivarez added that a group known as Integrated Psychiatric Consultants (IPC) will be onsite 8-10 hours each week offering psychological and psychiatric services, and in 2022 the facility may also start offering behavioral and mental health services.

Olivarez said there will be two beds per room, so a maximum occupancy of about 80. But, he doesn’t expect to be close to those numbers at the beginning, especially with a smaller staff. He wants to maintain a client to clinician ratio of 8-1, and several of the beds will be reserved for traveling staff members, clients who require handicap accessibility, veterans, and other specialty groups, he said.

Right now, the plans are only to utilize the Motherhouse for housing. Olivarez said the neighboring Monica Hall needs substantial repairs done to the roof and other repairs before it is considered for expansion. Crews are focused right now, though, on renovating the Motherhouse.

“We’re trying to bring it back to some usefulness,” Olivarez said. “I think it deserves it. I think Paola deserves it.”

When the sale was finalized earlier this year, the new owners took control of the Ursuline grounds and everything on it, but Olivarez said they are working diligently with the diocese and a religious official to make sure all of the religious artifacts find proper new homes.

Olivarez said St. James Academy in Lenexa will be getting most of the religious statues on the Ursuline property, and a new church being built by St. Paul Catholic Church in Olathe next summer will get the altar, stained glass windows and other religious artifacts from the Ursuline chapel.

Olivarez said he knows a lot of community money was given to Ursuline over the years, which is why he feels he owes it to the community to preserve the artifacts.

“I truly believe the site belongs to the community, and we’re going to try to be good stewards of it,” Olivarez said.

He also said the cemetery will remain property of the sisters, and it will not be disturbed. Some type of barrier likely will be put around the cemetery to separate it from the rest of the property, he said.

“We’ll make sure it’s honored and revered.”

Fencing and other barriers also are in the plans to make sure the drug rehab facility is appropriately shielded from the community.

“We’ll have to put some safeguards in place to protect our clients and the community,” Olivarez said. “The more barriers, the better it is for everybody.”

Olivarez acknowledged that the barriers may be difficult for some residents to get used to, especially if they used the grounds as a public walking area in the past.

“I see kids on their bikes and people walking their dogs,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a big change.”

Olivarez pointed out, though, that the plan is to still maintain some green space on the property.

“We’re not going to fence in 36 acres,” he said.

Signs on the grounds already warn people that it is private property.

A barn on the property is expected to remain, and Olivarez said they eventually would like to have horses there and offer equine therapy.

A vacant house on the property, though, may have a different fate. Olivarez said the house near the corner of Wea and East streets is in bad shape, and it may need to be demolished.

“I don’t know what the appropriate fix will be,” he said about the home.

Security and safety were the primary concerns raised by city officials during the Aug. 3 meeting. Council member Leigh House, who lives across from the Ursuline property, asked what she should tell her constituents to ease their worries.

“I know it’s going to be a tough sell to my neighbors,” House said.

Olivarez said they have been working closely with the Paola Police Department to ensure a quick response to any potential issue at the facility. He added that they plan to provide external security, as well as install 55 interior cameras to assist a staff that also will be trained in crisis de-escalation.

Olivarez also emphasized that the Paola facility is just the first step in the rehabilitation process, where clients will go through detox, which typically lasts three to five days, and residential treatment, which typically lasts 21 to 24 days.

After that, the clients graduate to outpatient services, and Olivarez said they intentionally are looking at a facility outside of Paola for those services. The property they are targeting is a 10,000-square-foot building in Overland Park.

“The intention is not to turn them loose in your community,” Olivarez said.

He also said many of the clients will be coming to Paola from all across the country, and when they leave, they should be heading back to their hometowns unless they are from Paola.

“Unless they’re from this area, there is no reason for them to stay in this area,” he said.

Admission at the facility will be voluntary, although Olivarez said some of the clients may be there by order of a court. He said payment will be cash and insurance-based, and there will be no Medicaid or Medicare.

Mayor Artie Stuteville asked Olivarez if he would be willing to attend a meeting with neighbors so they could learn more about the facility and get their questions answered. Olivarez said he would have no problem with that.

“I’m an open book,” Olivarez said. “I think we’re doing God’s work. I’m not interested in wrecking lifestyles. We just want to bring something back, infuse the local economy and help save some lives along the way.”

Olivarez said family weekends are scheduled to take place once a month, and he anticipates a boost for local lodging facilities and restaurants as family members come to visit their loved ones at the rehab center.

The project currently isn’t facing any logistical hurdles from the city of Paola. City Manager Sid Fleming confirmed that no rezoning from Thoroughfare Access is required for the new owners to operate a drug rehab facility on the grounds, and since the owners are renovating existing buildings and not constructing any new structures, there is no need to create a site plan or gain approval from the Paola Planning Commission.

Olivarez said there may even be an opportunity to work with the city on creating a much-needed parking lot for the Paola Community Center, which is owned by the city but sits on the Ursuline grounds just off Wea Street.

“We’re definitely open to it on our end,” he said.

Currently, Olivarez said he is focused on staffing, and he’s already interviewed several good candidates for an executive director position. Once the director is hired and trained, Olivarez said he will start focusing on the Overland Park project, as well as plans to establish rehab facilities in places like South Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

The three-story brick Ursuline Motherhouse building has been largely unused since 2008, when dwindling numbers and a need for infirmary care prompted the remaining aging nuns to put their 36.5-acre Ursuline campus on the market and merge with another Ursuline community in Maple Mount, Ky.

This isn’t the first time a group has looked at utilizing the former Ursuline campus for a new purpose.

In 2018, philanthropist Darol Rodrock of the Darol Rodrock Foundation announced plans to purchase the property and turn it into a home for foster children who have aged out of the system. Those plans fell through the following year.

In 2019, the property was purchased by Clareview LLC with reported plans to operate an assisted living facility, but that vision also failed to materialize.

Olivarez said he doesn’t expect the current plans to fall through because the ownership group believed enough in the project to invest more than $10 million in the real estate purchase and renovation commitment. He also said the faith-based history of the grounds makes it perfect for their purpose.

“We don’t cure anybody at the treatment center, we try to inspire hope,” Olivarez said. “And you can’t have hope without faith, and I can’t think of a better place to do that than this place.”

Senior Managing Editor Brian McCauley can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or brian.mccauley@miconews.com.

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