By Mary Spicer
VERNON TOWNSHIP —
An answer to that seemingly age-old question, “Whatever will become of the property formerly known as the Meadville Mall?” is beginning to emerge.
Ground was broken Thursday on Meadville Medical Center’s Vernon Place, a project that will allow MMC to compete in a world where outpatient treatment is rapidly becoming the norm. Plans call for work to begin in the spring of 2014 on the transformation of the 44-acre site of the former mall and present Kmart properties on Routes 6, 19 and 322 across from the Yolanda G. Barco Oncology Institute. Work on the first phase of the project is scheduled for completion by the fall of 2015.
“I went to work for the township 25 years ago,” Vernon Township Manager Dave Stone recalled shortly before symbolic shovels moved dirt Thursday afternoon before a crowd of almost 100. “The first project I worked on was this one.”
“We’ve been working on this for the last 18 years,” Vernon Township Supervisor Chairman Bob Davis told the Tribune earlier in the day. “We wanted somebody to come in that was local. We had other people interested that didn’t live in the area — they did their best but they didn’t know what the community needed.”
As Davis sees it, the perfect match has been found. “We know the job they did at the wellness and the oncology centers — they pull people from all over the tri-state area. I can’t think of a way to better promote Crawford County than by having these people do what they’re doing.”
The first phase of the plan will link MMC’s sports medicine, physical, occupational and speech therapy, occupational medicine, women’s diagnostic services and comprehensive state-of-the-art radiology technology with a new headquarters for Orthopedic Associates of Meadville and the Vernon branch of the Meadville Area Family YMCA.
Describing the project as “the product of a willingness to do what’s right for the community as a whole,” Mark Stevens, chairman of the MMC board, noted that Vernon Place will position MMC to meet the growing need for outpatient treatment, a move which will in turn allow the organization to thrive.
Anne White, vice president of outpatient services and chair of the Vernon Development Committee, noted that the process formally began in 2008 when a Vernon Township representative contacted MMC about the purchase of the 44-acre site — of which 27 acres are developable. Meetings with the Erie-based architectural firm of Weber Murphy Fox and Porter Consulting Engineers of Meadville began in 2012. “Site plans were created. And recreated. And recreated,” White recalled.
White explained that when the hospital’s Liberty Street and Grove Street facilities were originally built, the primary care was inpatient care. Today, 70 percent of the hospital’s business is outpatient. “We are constantly retrofitting spaces that were designed for inpatient services for outpatient,” she said.
While MMC will devote major attention to its Vernon Township facilities, “there’s going to be a presence in Meadville,” White said, noting that while they will have to respond to future trends and needs, closing either of the major Meadville facilities isn’t on her radar at the present time.
The expanded need for outpatient treatment facilities isn’t just a local issue. It also isn’t new on the horizon.
In 1994, for example, an article in the Journal of Nursing Administration observed that “One major change (in the American health care delivery system) is a trend toward outpatient ambulatory health care. Procedures once performed in the hospital currently are done routinely on an outpatient basis.”
Fast forward almost 20 years.
An article published in 2013 by The American Institute of Architects titled “‘Bedless hospital’ marks sign of the times” notes that “Ambulatory care is expected to increase as a percentage of total health care volume, with inpatient care continuing to decline. ... To address chronic disease, the focus on wellness of individuals has become the new emphasis in addressing the long-term nature and lifestyle related issues surrounding one’s health.”
The February issue of Hospitals & Health Networks magazine agrees, citing a “hospital without beds” scheduled for completion during the third quarter of 2014 by New York City’s Montefiore Medical Center as “a perfect example of what is expected to become a growing trend.”
During Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremonies near the site of the former Montgomery Ward retail store, it was explained that the multi-phase project will begin in that area on the property with the first phase, which will house MMC facilities; 26,000 square feet for Orthopedic Associates, a dramatic increase from their current 14,000 square feet at Alden Place in Meadville; and a 20,000 square foot state-of-the-art YMCA facility — all under a single roof. The second phase, two nearby buildings that will be used by MMC, is scheduled to begin when the first phase is complete. The part of the property presently occupied by Kmart under a lease expiring in 2017 is not scheduled for improvement until phase three of the project.
“The average person doesn’t know what is involved in trying to get something accomplished,” Stone said. “We’ve been meeting with MMC for a long time to find the best fit for MMC, for the Vernon Township community and for the greater Meadville area as a whole.”
Meadville Mayor Christopher Soff was on hand for the ceremony. “I congratulate Meadville Medical Center on a robust, dynamic project that will continue to enable the medical center to provide the best quality care for people in the Meadville community,” he said. “What makes MMC stronger makes the city stronger — and the entire Meadville community. It will be a wonderful project.”
While the fiscal impact of the tax-exempt status of a large percentage of properties within the City of Meadville has become a topic of conversation during city budget discussions, Davis isn’t worried about the impact on the Vernon Township economy.
“Our tax millage is very low anyway — only 2 mills,” Davis said. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 in a property’s assessed value.
“What makes a difference is the number of new employees coming in. With the township collecting $52 per year from every worker employed in the township, that’s where we make our money,” Davis said. “That’s where the township will profit.”
“Whenever this comes,” he continued, “you’re going to see other things coming. Restaurants. Retail stores. They’re coming. This is where the traffic is. This is why we’ve always promoted that plaza as the heart of the township — and we were right.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.