Hospital Leaders Revisit Building Plans

By JULIA WELLS

The plan has changed and the $50 million price tag is heading south — how far south, it's too early to say.

But leaders at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital confirmed this week that they have taken a fresh tack in their quest to replace the decrepit Island hospital with a new building.

"We said it's time to take a deep breath and rethink a few things," said Tim Sweet, who is vice president of the hospital board of trustees.

Nine months ago hospital trustees announced their intention to replace the leaky, sprawling circa 1972 hospital with a brand new state-of-the-art building.

At an estimated cost of $50 million, the project may prove to be the most ambitious capital project in the history of the Vineyard.

The original plan called for razing the existing hospital in phases and building a new, three-story structure with an emergency room and a complete range of services including radiology, laboratory, surgery, obstetrics, acute care and intensive care. A separate professional building to house doctors' offices was also planned.

At a public forum last winter Island residents were critical of the plan to have the hospital face Eastville avenue. There was also some criticism of the plan to build a separate professional building for doctors, and many said that they were stunned at the $50 million price tag.

Mr. Sweet and hospital CEO Tim Walsh said they took it all to heart.

In an interview with the Gazette yesterday they said a revised plan now on deck calls for building a new hospital that will be married to the rear portion of the old 1929 cottage hospital. The new plan calls for a building that faces Beach Road instead of Eastville avenue, and it will not include a new professional building to house doctor's offices. Instead, the existing hospital would be renovated for use as office space, administration and other ancillary services including day care, visiting nurses and complementary medicine.

"The hospital is what we need," Mr. Walsh said.

"I think this is a better plan," said Mr. Sweet. "I think it's a smarter plan," added Mr. Walsh.

Mr. Walsh and Mr. Sweet said the emerging new plan is still a work in progress, but they said they hope to have it ready for a formal public presentation by the end of May.

The plan for the new 19-bed hospital has not changed when it comes to size — the building is still envisioned at 125,000 square feet, with a full complement of medical services, and second story patient rooms, all private.

Mr. Sweet and Mr. Walsh also said Columbia Construction Company, a North Reading company that specializes in hospital construction, was recently hired to be the construction manager for the project.

Under the direction of president Bruce Gordon, Columbia will act as the general contractor and clerk of the works for the project.

Mr. Walsh and Mr. Sweet said there are many advantages to hiring a construction manager early on in the process, because it will allow hospital planners to match conceptual and architectural plans with the practical aspects of building the project.

They said the construction manager helped to steer the building project in the latest direction after raising questions about the plan to demolish and rebuild the old hospital building in phases.

"I knew we were going to have problems with that and he pointed it out right away," Mr. Walsh said.

The current plan calls for tearing down the front portion of the old cottage hospital and then building the new hospital in front of it. The kitchen, which is located in the old cottage hospital, would be saved, which is another cost savings for the project.

But it remains to be seen just how much can be shaved from the $50 million estimate.

"That number is coming down, we just don't know yet how much," Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Walsh and Mr. Sweet said the new plan has many other advantages, including the fact that the helicopter pad will not need to be moved from its present location.

Helicopter service is an integral component of emergency services at an Island hospital, where patients with severe trauma are flown to larger medical centers on the mainland. Mr. Walsh said the Vineyard hospital flies about 200 helicopter trips a year.

Mr. Sweet said there is no plan to launch a capital fundraising drive this summer.

But the building plan is still very much on the move, and Mr. Walsh and Mr. Sweet said the real deadline is July 1, when the hospital must file a determination of need (DON) with the state department of public health. All hospital projects over $10 million must file a DON with complete plans, including projected cost.

The architect for the project is Mark Rowland, an architect with Thomas, Miller & Partners in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the hospital continues to show improved financial health under the direction of Mr. Walsh, who was formerly the chief financial officer.

Unaudited financials from the fiscal year that ended March 31 show the hospital had an operating gain of some $400,000. Mr. Walsh said patient volume was up across the board.

"There seems to be a renewed confidence in the hospital," Mr. Sweet said.

The picture is even improving at the Windemere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, which has been plagued by severe financial problems since the day it opened ten years ago. Windemere is an affiliate of the hospital and shares the same campus.

Windemere ended its fiscal year on Dec. 31 with an operating loss of $197,000, which will bring the combined year-end gain for the hospital down to about $200,000. But Windemere ended its first quarter in the black this year for the first time in memory.

"The real goal for next year is to have both institutions operate in the black. Then we will be getting somewhere," Mr. Walsh concluded.