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Commerce, Burgum staff listen to ideas for hospital’s future

By Sue Sitter - | May 29, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT The fate of the building Heart of America Medical Center currently occupies was a topic for discussion by a hospital steering committee and state government officials May 24. Parts of the structure date to the 1940s.

Officials from the North Dakota Department of Commerce and the Bank of North Dakota joined members of a steering committee for the Good Samaritan Hospital Association to discuss the future of Heart of America Medical Center’s building May 24 at the hospital.

The visiting group included Commerce Commissioner James Leiman, Jace Beehler, who serves as Gov. Doug Burgum’s chief of staff, Maria Effertz-Hanson, community development leader for the department of commerce and Commerce Deputy Commissioner Shawn Kessel. Kylee Merkel represented the Bank of North Dakota at the meeting. All met with the steering committee in the Fox Auditorium at HAMC.

The state government and banking officials listened to ideas and concerns voiced by steering committee members surrounding planned construction of a new hospital and how to repurpose the hospital’s present building, a structure with portions dating to the 1940s.

HAMC CEO Erik Christenson outlined the five-phase plan for the new hospital, which began last year with a strategic plan and recommendations after accounting firm Wipfli of Milwaukee, Wis., analyzed the hospital’s situation in its current building, located on Main Avenue.

“It’s very aged, built in the ’40s and it’s 150,000 square feet and we only need 70,000,” Christenson said, describing some of the problems with the hospital’s building. “It’s cost-report allocated poorly,” he added, describing financial issues uncovered by Wipfli. “So, we’re losing about $2.3 million a year by staying here.”

Christenson added, “We’ve moved through Phase 1 with Wipfli and we’re moving into Phase 2 with the USDA,” noting the hospital would seek a community facility loan for construction. “We’re looking at a brand-new site and brand-new facility. So, we’re looking to spend close to 45 million dollars. It’s a huge project for the community and a big project for the state.”

Christenson said he and members of the steering committee called the meeting to discuss ideas for using the hospital building once HAMC moves to its new location. Christenson estimated ground would be broken at the new building’s site, located across from Farm Credit Services on U.S. Highway 2, in 18 months.

To afford the new project, HAMC would not have a care center for long-term and nursing home patients at the new facility.

Two North Dakota legislators, Rep. Dick Anderson of District 6 and Rep. Jon Nelson of District 14, attended the meeting. Nelson told the group the care center could play a key role in the hospital’s future.

“We have a 45- bed care center upstairs, memory unit on third and then the second floor is the skilled nursing facility. We also have a basic care facility across town, a six-bed assisted living facility and a 37-bed assisted living facility, all part of the association,” Christenson told the group. “The community’s biggest concern is, can we afford it and what should we do with the care center? And that was the discussion here. Do we remodel the current care center structure and keep it here to try to utilize this structure?”

“We’re owned by 22 churches in the area. They’re very concerned about this. They don’t want this building to wind up as a pigeon nest,” Christenson added.

Beehler asked the steering committee members if moving the hospital to a new location would have a negative impact on downtown businesses. Kevin Leier, vice chair of Rugby Economic Development Corporation and steering committee member, told Beehler remodeling the current structure would cost $7 million more than building a new facility.

The group discussed various uses for the former building, one of which included keeping the care center at that location and using part of the structure as a community center. Leier described placing a solid glass wall in the building, “where long-term residents on one side are actually still getting to interact with what’s going on.” Leier said he could imagine his four-year-old “bouncing on a gymnastics mat (in the community center), and an 85-year-old long-term resident still getting to see that happen, even if you had to lock that facility down,” a reference to the yearlong lockdowns experienced at nursing homes due to COVID-19.

Leier said the idea would take a significant financial investment “that I don’t think our community could handle. We’re at seven percent sales tax already and we’re a pretty conservative community with property taxes.”

Two percent of local sales tax goes to Rugby government, while five percent goes to North Dakota state government.

Judge Michael Hurly, also a steering committee member, recalled watching his young children play at Disney World. Hurly said when children have open space, “they’re going to run around. I also remember when we were young playing, all the old people were just smiling. And that’s why I really got onto this idea because it really is reinventing how we do long-term care in the future. The community needs a draw. The stars are aligned to fix a lot of problems,” Hurly said.

Hurly said if the building were abandoned, “in five years, this is going to be blight. And no one’s going to want to develop it because there will be so many problems.”

Kessel, Effertz-Hanson and Merkel outlined federal, state and private programs that could provide either loans or grant funds to various suggested uses for the hospital’s present building, depending on whether the space was used for public, private or combined commercial and government space.

Steering committee members brought up a suggestion by Pierce County Commissioner Ashley Berg, who said the space could be used for hotel rooms. Kessel told the group, “That’s happening right now in Grand Forks at the Canad Inn.”

Kessel told the group the space had potential for rental for weddings and other gatherings as well.

Effertz-Hanson discussed possibly using the space for career and technical education training programs.

“If it’s redone, the amount of tax revenue that could be gained off the city to help with additional projects like the community center, et cetera, is huge,” Beehler noted, adding the community would see the most success by housing a mix of commercial and government space. “When you put private dollars in existing infrastructure, that’s the highest ROI you get for the community,” he explained.

Officials also presented information about renaissance zones and how relocating City of Rugby offices to the old hospital building could expand Rugby’s renaissance zone to include the building. The zone currently ends just north of the hospital’s location.

The group also heard Merkel present information on the Bank of North Dakota’s Infrastructure Revolving Loan fund for the new facility.

“Keep us in the loop about what’s in the tool box and what could be in there,” Nelson asked the state officials. “We are limited in rural North Dakota with some of the funding options. If there are some advancements we can make, and I think we truly will have some opportunity to do that, I would be more than willing to discuss that and I can start it up in the Prairie Room if I have to,” he added.

“There’s so much to do here and I’m going to need to lean on other experts out here in the community to get this done because I think we have to do it,” Christenson told the group. “I don’t think there’s a ‘maybe we should,'” he said about moving forward with the new facility. “There’s going to be an endpoint with it. This organization will not be able to sustain in this building as it’s currently functioning.”

Christenson said he hoped City of Rugby government would increase its involvement in the hospital’s plan. “It involves a lot of the community,” he said.

After the meeting adjourned, Nelson and the government officials visited the Rugby Job Development office.

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