Written on: January 18, 2021 by John Vastyan
In 2019, Kalisha Stevens’ life hung on a string. Well, actually it was a pneumatic pump known as an “LVAD,” for left ventricular assist device, connected to her heart. She’s now out of the hospital and on a list for a heart transplant. While the LVAD rhythmically pumped blood for her heart while in a critical care unit, essential blood flow was only one of her main concerns.
As a single mother of twins Myra and Ameera, Stevens knew that her savings were dissolving by the minute. She needed to survive if only to provide a home, as well as a mother’s love, for her girls. Little did Stevens know that events unfolding nearby would help to build a foundation for her and her girls.
For many years, a big three-story building in downtown Denver, PA—once a bustling saloon and hotel known as Denver House—had become the community’s festering blight. The drug-infested structure had become home turf for all type and variety of crime.
Denver House was built in 1863 as a hotel and bar and was once the hallmark of Denver. Rod Redcay, Mayor of Denver and Executive Director of REAL Life Community Services, a faith-based non-profit, noted, “Back in the day, it was the most beautiful building in our community.
“Like so many buildings of its kind, Denver House was later remodeled into a boarding house with 22 living units; the bar remained,” Redcay added. “For decades, conditions worsened. Ultimately, it became the source of our highest police call volume. The owner eventually checked out, leaving unpaid mortgage, taxes, trash and fuel oil. We knew we had to do something.”
Redcay and others formed a non-profit LLC (REAL Life Community Services), purchasing the building at a tax sale in 2016. A grant from the borough to acquire the structure, intended as transitional housing for those in need, inaugurated an effort that has since become a model for other communities to follow.
After the purchase of Denver House and its three-acre property, remaining tenants were connected to various community resources—eventually all were relocated. Then, the work began: 250 volunteers emptied the structure of its trash, which required about 30 large dumpsters. Meanwhile, Redcay and others went to local businesses and institutions for help, eventually raising more than $400,000 for renovations. They also appealed to the State, receiving $2 million more.
Initial projections for renovations put the cost at $1.7 million, although costs climbed to $3.5 million as the extent of work, and vision for improvements, grew. REAL Life Community Services, a nonprofit organization that helps youth and at-risk families, had big plans for the building.
The name “Declaration House” was chosen when Redcay and six local pastors gathered to talk about and pray for transformation in the community. Not long after that, Scott Leid, CFO of Ephrata National Bank, became Chairman of the capital campaign. Throughout 2016–2018, work proceeded steadily as the structure was gradually emptied, dismantled and rebuilt, nearly doubling its size to 22,000 square feet. Declaration House is now home to 10 apartments (with one or two bedrooms), a social service office, a medical/ dental/ behavioral health counseling center and a 1,500 sq ft organic foods grocery store.
An HVAC solution
Vince Youndt, President of Stevens, PA-based Vertex Mechanical, explained that he and Rob Redcay graduated high school together in 1989.
“I’ve kept in touch with Rod ever since. Shortly after he became mayor of Denver, he told me about his vision for the building,” said Youndt.
Not long after that, the two spoke about plumbing and HVAC solutions for the structure, all eventually handled professionally by Vertex experts.
“Our biggest challenge was to find a way to cost-effectively provide heating and cooling for residents, common areas and the retail and medical service spaces,” added Youndt. “Initially, we looked at installing a large furnace coupled with split systems for air conditioning. With some difficulty, chiefly with ducting, we could’ve made it work, but it was overly-complicated, and residents would have no way to equitably pay for their own utilities. We recalibrated the plan, switching to high efficiency Fujitsu mini-split heat pumps to meet the need.”
Youndt added that with one 24,000 BTU condenser, ten 18,000 BTU condensers and one 12,000 BTU condenser—all mounted on a flat roof atop the Declaration House—they were able to heat and cool the entire structure.
One of Youndt’s head-scratchers was the need to reduce the cost of providing an HVAC solution to Declaration House. After some discussions with designers and technicians, they came up with ways to simplify the installation of Fujitsu’s ARU behind-the-wall air handlers, used for many of the apartments (some wall-hung units were also used).
“We developed a design that we could replicate for all of the living units,” said Youndt. “We had eight-inch wall thicknesses to work with, and fortunately a lot of similarity between the size and makeup of the living spaces. Our installation crews knew that time was of the essence, but that there was to be no compromise in quality, durability and reliability.”
“Before we moved into Declaration House, I lived in two single-bedroom apartments, both of which weren’t very comfortable, and each cost a lot more for electric utilities,” said Stevens. “Here, I pay all utilities with an average of $50 a month for electric, year-round. We’ve been here for summer months, and winter, and it’s very comfortable. The girls and I are very happy about that.”
Today, Stevens, Myra and Ameera live in comfort in their two-bedroom apartment at Declaration House. Stevens and her daughters live a relatively stress-free life, affordably. The girls are getting an education, her budget works and they enjoy the blessings of a great church family. So now, as Stevens completes her preparations for transplant heart candidacy, everything else is in place. And that’s a blessing indeed. ICM
John Vastyan is Owner of Common Ground, an HVAC/plumbing + mechanical trade communications firm based in Manheim, PA.