Fair trade: New hospital zeroes in on Wadena County Fairgrounds
A potential new Tri-County Health Care hospital rising up from the Wadena County Fairgrounds brought rise to an unusual gathering Tuesday night.
Wadena City Council members, Wadena County Commissioners, ag society board members, Tri-County Health Care staff and board members and members of the public attended the meeting. It was the first joint meeting of its kind that looked to answer, why a new hospital and why at the fairgrounds?
Preaching from the stage to a rather crowded group assembled in the former church, now Karvonen's Funeral Home, President and CEO of TCHC Joel Beiswenger outlined the value of the hospital to the community and how a move with a new facility would help the healthcare system remain competitive in a changed health industry.
The need for a new hospital has been spurred on by numerous factors that Beiswenger took time to discuss. A 180-degree flip from the way patients use the hospital was chief on the list. While inpatient care accounted for 90 percent of the business in 1974, inpatients now only account for 13 percent. Less invasive procedures allow for quick turnaround for most patients.
And while you don't have to stay as long in the hospital, those that do, like new mothers, are looking to stay in more of a hotel setting. Beiswenger said the current facility has more of an institutional feel that does not compete well with some of the newer facilities in the region. It's hurting business, he said.
The current location is landlocked on 4 acres. All departments are landlocked and cramped, Beiswenger said. To remodel would be difficult, disruptive, would cost only about 20 percent less than new, would still utilize 50-100 year old buildings and would still keep everything landlocked.
The answer seemed to be building a new hospital for patients, while continuing use of the old facilities or at least parts of them for non-patient staff.
"The fairgrounds is it"
Beiswenger spoke about the research over the last 18 months that went into finding the best location. In short, the Wadena County Fairgrounds provides a site that's—the most visible, with highest traffic, that's within Wadena County, but not too close to the nearest hospital (Lakewood Health Systems in Staples.)
All those points were important Beiswenger explained. Here's a closer look at his points.
• The current site, as some responders indicated, is hidden. One woman, who was part of an advisory group, shared how she'd lived in the area for years, yet never knew TCHC existed until her husband took a job there. TCHC is on the other major road in Wadena, Hwy 71.
• Based on traffic comparisons, Hwy 10 had about twice the traffic of Hwy 71, the current major highway TCHC sits on. Beiswenger said the number he came across was about 13,300 vehicles on west Hwy 10. Hwy 71 North traffic was closer to 6,900.
• Remaining in Wadena County was important as TCHC is now the only hospital in the county. Wadena actually sits in the far southwest corner of the county. So, while there is some open ground to the west of Wadena on Hwy 10, just a few blocks to the west beyond the fairgrounds would put the hospital in Otter Tail County.
Beiswenger said there is no benefit or consequence currently to being the only hospital in the county. But as others mentioned, Wadena County and the city of Wadena do benefit from the taxes that are paid in.
Beiswenger did say Otter Tail County was not out of the question.
• Keeping enough distance between hospitals was important, Beiswenger said, because if the hospital were to fall under the 20 mile distance from Lakewood, the next closest hospital, it could at some point jeopardize the critical access funding the hospital receives. So while there are open areas just to the east of Wadena on Hwy 10, that would move the hospital under 20 miles from Lakewood. The next closest hospital to the west is Perham Health, about 28 miles away. While it's not currently in law that they have to be more than 20 miles apart, Beiswenger doesn't want to get too close as it could be harmful to both hospitals.
Already primed for some of the questions he expected, Beiswenger noted that funding for the hospital was not coming from public sources. In a presentation, Beiswenger explained how Tri-County Health Care is a private, not-for-profit. It receives no tax subsidies and it must make revenue and receive donations to pay the bills.
Beiswenger said this project does not increase the taxes of property owners in the county. TCHC is the sixth largest taxpayer in Wadena County.
The importance of having an attractive facility accessible and noticeable to the region was critical in making sure the business was successful. If they are not seen as an attractive choice on the outside, new patients may never know what's inside.
A social media response to the announcement of the hospital build spoke of concern about healthcare costs increasing. Beiswenger responded to that, too,
"That is not the case," Beiswenger said.
He gave an analogy of a local grocery store that is building a new store in town. He asked the audience if they expected to pay more for groceries after the opening. His answer was "no." The costs he said are set by the market, not by the construction project.
Hospital board member Matt Van bruggen moderated the event allowing Beiswenger about 40 minutes, 4 minutes from each of the boards present to make an opening statement and later a closing statement and 3 minutes for each member of the public looking to speak. A 30 minute group discussion was allowed, but none of the board members on stage took a chance to discuss the topic.
In general, comments heard were positive, but represented a small amount of those that filled much of the seating. The public comment period was not meant to be a question answer session, some that had questions did not get an answer.
Scott Pettit spoke up noting that he was impressed how positive all the comments were from the various boards as he was under the belief that the fair board was less accepting of the project. In a fair board statement, president Bryan Wegsheid said that the fair was willing to do whatever it takes to make this project work.
Wadena Mayor George Deiss shared how there is already an excitement in Wadena over the growth in the community. He said the city supports both the hospital project and the work to maintain a strong fair, with the hope the fair would stay within Wadena city limits.
Wadena County Board chair Bill Stearns said the county was interested in any and all ideas that would help to make Wadena County a better place to live, work and play.
The lone youth to speak up during the meeting was Brandi Lalum, a member of the Wadena Juniors 4-H club. She shared how she was in her final year of 4-H and she was concerned about what would become of the historic buildings at the fairgrounds that have grown on her. While she didn't want to see them gone, she had concerns about damage they would incur in a move.
"It could be really great," Brandi said of the possibility of a new fair location, but she also cared about seeing the old buildings stay a part of the tradition she has come to enjoy.
The question was taken into consideration, but Van Bruggen said that was still to be determined.
Long-time Wadena resident Greg Anderson said he hoped whatever was done that the hospital not be moved out of the county, taking money off the tax rolls.
Wadena Assembly of God Pastor Mike Maroney said he had a great interest and pride in the future of Tri-County Health Care, including the parking lot that the church has been able to use for free.
Past Wadena County commissioner Ralph Miller gave the group a history lesson of sorts explaining how the funds came to be to pay for the Wadena County Fairgrounds. He mentioned $2.6 million of taxpayer money went into making the fairgrounds what it is. His comment expressed how making a move would leave behind what many taxpayer dollars helped build.
Miller said he was born in the Wesley Hospital and he asked the board members to consider thinking about all their options of reusing the current structures before jumping on the fairgrounds.
"But I'm a little afraid it's already been decided," Miller concluded.
In closing statements, Bryan Wegscheid mentioned there are 26 buildings on the fairgrounds, too many to use and too many to maintain.
TCHC board member Terry Davis said that the facts make it pretty obvious what the hospital needs to do. He felt the gathering of all groups and public was a necessary step to move forward. TCHC board member Ryan Anderson was impressed with the positive atmosphere. He had concerns that there might be more push back. He took that as an indication that they were headed in the right direction.
Fair board member Brittney Ewert said she hoped everyone could work together to make it work best for all.
"I feel that there is always room for improvement in things, looking towards the future growth, spending money elsewhere instead of on maintenance," Ewert said. She felt that if moving toward a new location, they could create a space that could flow better and be better utilized.
Site testing has taken place at the fairgrounds. Anderson said more tests need to be done to make certain the site is suitable. TCHC anticipates breaking ground in 2020 and moving into the facility in the fall of 2022, if all goes as planned.
"There's no big steps coming up soon, it's all small details to make sure that we're not getting ahead of ourselves," Anderson said.
Anderson said they would next likely come up with a plan to present to the fair board, but how quickly that might move along was still an unknown.
Beiswenger said during the meeting that costs of the new building are still too soft to mention.