Doors Wide Open

It is fitting that in Cary Magazine’s 10th anniversary year we revisit the story of SearStone. Looking back through the magazine’s archives, a feature in January/February 2006 first introduced the planned retirement community to Cary Magazine readers. At that time SearStone comprised renderings, plans and the vision of Bill Sears.

Today the community is a reality for hundreds of residents and staff. For those who have been anticipating it for several years, it is a dream come true.

The Vision
SearStone is many things to many people: a place to retire, a comfortable home, a fitness center, a public park, a lively clubhouse, fine-dining restaurant and even a “cruise ship on land.” For its founder, Bill Sears, it is a swansong to Cary and a tribute to his parents, John and Maggie Sears.

SearStone sits on land that was formerly part of the Sears’ family farm, where his mother was born and raised, and Bill Sears himself milked cows in the mornings before school. At the intersection of High House Road and Davis Drive, the now-bustling destination was once the family farmhouse, which fell victim to the expansion of Cary and widening of Davis Drive.

The SearStone clubhouse is the hub of resident life.

“The reason SearStone is here is that my parents have always indicated to their children that their intention was to live on this farm for their full life,” said Sears. “As Cary moved westward, it became much more difficult to maintain it as a farm.”

With a background in architecture and a specialty in health care facility design, Sears saw an opportunity to create a new philosophy in retirement living and help his parents achieve their dream.   

“I suggested to my mom and dad the possibility of turning the farm into a community asset that would allow them to continue to live on the farm along with other people who needed the same thing that they did,” he said.

“My dad said, ‘If you can give to me a community that doesn’t take all my estate, doesn’t take away my independence or dignity and doesn’t restrict my lifestyle, then we’ll talk about it,’” recalls Sears.

Features include an indoor pool, fitness center, dining and socializing options and billiards.

Sears spent four years developing the philosophy for SearStone by visiting and researching other retirement communities in the Southeast. In combination with his professional background and personal upbringing, the concept began to take shape.

“The lifestyle that I enjoyed as a child is really what this is all about,” he said. “It’s something that many people never get to experience. For example, the landscape at SearStone is a product of the fruit trees, berries and plants that I grew up with.”

Residents and visitors will be welcome to pick the fruit from the trees. The lake that the community is centered around pays homage to the farm pond where Sears learned to fish. A beloved family horse named Ghostbuster inspired the development’s current emblem.

Idyllic as the concept is, Sears’ philosophy is based in cutting-edge research as well.

SearStone residents enjoy bocci ball with wellness director Mark Johnson.

“We are one of those leading-edge experiments,” said Sears. “I am working right now with some experts in the field of neuroscience, exploring how environment can influence health, age and longevity in retirement.”

The vision that Sears crafted successfully endured a massive economic downturn and industry naysayers, but there were moments when Sears feared it might never become reality.

“The industry basically refused to accept the premise that SearStone was designed around. We were fighting for the last 12 years, not only the industry but the economy. The odds against SearStone ever existing were probably 1,000 to one.”

Come On In
To get an idea of SearStone’s structure, imagine a horseshoe. At the crux sits the clubhouse, the center of facilities and resident life. The residences line the sides in a mix of apartments and estate homes. A pavilion and lake occupy the middle of the “U” shape, providing a beautiful gathering place that will host the grove of fruit trees and a scenic vista visible from a large number of the residences.

Nature, open space and timeless architecture were all thoughtfully incorporated to create the unique SearStone environment.

Inside the clubhouse you’ll find a warm and comfortably elegant atmosphere, designed by Sears’ daughter, Lisa Sears.

“The interior is a mix of masculine and feminine, with warm and natural materials like leather and wood. It’s very homey,” she said.

Onsite dining and included housekeeping and maintenance are all part of the appeal of SearStone living.

The clubhouse facilities draw residents in for cultural activities, fitness and aquatics classes, billiards, dining and impromptu gatherings.

“There’s so much to do here,” said SearStone resident Barbara Treble. “You can be busy every day.”

Treble enjoys practicing golf on the lawn and outings to nearby courses with wellness director Mark Johnson.

“We’re a land-based cruise ship,” said Johnson. “That’s our goal — to keep residents busy.” Johnson, a Cary native, graduated from East Carolina University with a health and fitness degree and jumped at the chance to shape SearStone’s wellness program.

SearStone’s clubhouse is “comfortably elegant,” says designer Lisa Sears.

“I’m getting to start everything from scratch,” he said. Johnson teaches 30 fitness classes a week including water aerobics, stretching and balance and gait. Each new resident receives a fitness orientation with Johnson and together they craft an individualized wellness plan.
Onsite salon and massage services are also available, as is the main attraction — a heated pool.

“On the weekends, we can’t keep the grandkids out of the pool!” he said.

All that activity certainly works up an appetite, and residents and their guests have three different dining options: casual, formal or bistro.

“We have a gourmet chef and the food is incredible,” said Treble.

Next to come to the SearStone community will be a medical office building, just outside the main “horseshoe.” Following that will be a boutique hotel, designed for visiting family members and guests of residents. The hotel will back up to the lake and feature a sand beach.

The community welcomes residents, guests and community members to its grounds.

“We are also working in partnership with N.C. State to create a botanical conservatory,” said Morgan Lamphere, director of sales and marketing. “It will be a 22,000-square-foot indoor showcase of indigenous North Carolina plants.

“The fact that it’s all open to the public really makes it very different,” she said. “When you have people from the town coming in and enjoying the space, it makes our residents feel more welcome to bring their own families.”

“What we’re trying to do is to create  reasons for the entire community of Cary to be right here,” said Sears.

Worth the Wait
Lamphere joined the SearStone team in 2008 and had a front row seat to the challenges in financing and sales the community would face over the next several years. But Lamphere feels the finished product was worth the wait.

“It is absolutely like living a dream every day. I can’t tell you how many times I imagined what it would look like walking around the lake or touring an apartment,” she said. “But what’s really special is that it turned out better than what we dreamed of.”

Many residents, too, endured long gaps between their initial sign up and opening day in November 2013. Margaret Moore and her late husband Carl put their deposit down in November 2006. A full seven years later she moved into her new home at SearStone.

The Sears family enjoys life alongside SearStone residents. From left, Linda Suggs, John and Maggie Belle Sears, Bill  and Rita Sears.

“I made a decision early on that I would like to plan to be in a home so that my children don’t have to ever worry about me,” said Moore, whose background in the medical field had shown her examples of family discord and anxiety caused by concern for aging parents.

“I liked the whole concept (of SearStone), so much so that we put down a deposit to be one of the first 100 sign-ons,” she said. “I felt very secure with our decision. We never looked anywhere else in our area.”

Even with the confidence in her decision, Moore experienced mixed emotions when move-in day finally came, leaving a house that she loved and downsizing a lifetime of possessions.

“This is a major life-altering move,” she said. “The whole impact just hit me like a ton of bricks. I kept thinking, ‘I know that this has been a rational decision and in the long run it is going to be the best thing.’

“It’s an adjustment, but we’re all going through it together. Having people to talk to and finding that I’m not alone feeling this way — it’s fun sharing this with others.”

Moore describes the people she’s met at SearStone, both residents and staff, as an extended family — warm, friendly and humble.

“Now I’m here I don’t feel like leaving,” she said. “I can’t think of what could be more rewarding for both me and my family, to know that I’m happy and in such a stimulating environment.”

Lamphere believes the connection with the Sears family is one of the aspects that makes the SearStone lifestyle so unique.

“The fact that this has such deep historical roots here in Cary, that the family didn’t just sell the land. They live here and enjoy life alongside the other residents and are an active part of the community here,” she said. “I think our residents really value that. This is a family that wanted to truly leave a legacy to their town.”

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