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Executive Talk: MVHS COO discusses community engagement effort for new hospital

Bob Scholefield, executive VP/chief operating officer at the Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS), and Nancy Pattarini (right) president and CEO of The Paige Group, have teamed up to engage the community in the building of a new health-care center in downtown Utica. The new facility is projected to open in late 2021 or early 2022. Photo credit: Norman Poltenson

UTICA, N.Y. — Building a hospital is not an everyday occurrence, considering only two have been built in New York state over the last quarter century. The process is complex and extends over many years. 

“This community has a tremendous opportunity,” says Bob Scholefield, executive VP/chief operating officer (COO) at the Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS). “The decision to build a brand, new health-care center in a downtown location will have a huge, positive impact, but it will also be disruptive. Every resident will be affected by this decision, and … [it is incumbent upon us] to bring the community into the decision-making process. We have to get this right.” MVHS has retained The Paige Group, a Utica–based marketing-communications firm, to guide the community-engagement process.

Nancy Pattarini, president and CEO of The Paige Group, explains how the process is being organized. “There is a project-steering committee, whose role is to provide technical and financial oversight,” she says. “There also will be a community-advisory group established after the architect is on board, which gathers, synthesizes, and shares community input, providing feedback to the project-steering committee. The Paige Group is focused on proactively having conversations with stakeholders, giving informational presentations, creating multiple channels (web site, phone, meetings, etc.) for community input, partnering with local and regional media to keep people informed, and facilitating the advisory-group’s work. To date, outreach meetings have included business owners, residents, educators, and the area’s elected leadership. In January, we are planning a community meeting to explain both the vision and the process and to create a dialogue.” MVHS began the engagement process in late 2015, and to date, has held 18 different presentations. The Paige Group has committed three employees to the project to work with the MVHS staff.


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The most commonly asked questions
“There is keen interest in the new hospital,” avers Scholefield, “and there are a number of questions at each presentation. What’s clear is that three main questions are on everyone’s mind: “Why does the area need a new hospital,” “why is it sited downtown?,” and “what will happen to MVHS?” Let me answer them in order.

Why build a new hospital?
“The St. Elizabeth and St. Luke’s campuses are 60 to 100 years old; … [needless to say] the delivery of health care is much different now. The current facilities are constrained by their age, layout, and physical limitations. Consolidating our resources eliminates redundancies and provides efficiencies; allows us to expand the depth and breadth of our services; improves the quality of our health-care delivery; ensures greater coverage for specialized care; and elevates the patient experience by providing all private inpatient-rooms, accommodating family members and visitors, improving communications, and providing the convenience of one-stop access to multiple providers. A new, state-of-the-art hospital will also help us to attract physicians to our system to meet the growing demand of an aging population for health care. Finally, a new hospital will cost less to operate and maintain than our existing facilities.” 

Why site the hospital downtown?
After reviewing a dozen sites within a 5-mile to 10-mile radius of downtown Utica, Scholefield says the MVHS board of directors chose a location between Oriskany and Columbia Streets across from the Utica Memorial Auditorium. 

“MVHS serves Madison, Oneida, and Herkimer Counties,” the COO notes. “The new hospital is centrally located to serve all of our residents. Secondly, the downtown site is on major bus routes, which people can easily access. Third, this project will help to fuel Utica’s urban revival, which is already underway. Thousands of MVHS employees will work downtown every day patronizing restaurants and other businesses. Some may move downtown to be closer to work. Fourth, the downtown location allocates a substantial area for parking, both for the convenience of the staff and the visitors. In the evening, when many of the parking slots are available, the parking area will accommodate thousands of visitors to the auditorium. And fifth, the development of the downtown site will provide infrastructure upgrades of the surrounding area, including water, gas, and sewer plus bike and pedestrian routes.”

What happens to MVHS?
In 2014, St. Elizabeth Medical Center (SEMC) affiliated with Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare (FSLH) to form MVHS, governed by an 18-member board of directors. “The corporate structure for the new hospital has not been finalized, but it certainly will be a single corporate entity with a new name,” Scholefield stresses. “The new name has not yet been chosen … The new health-care system will not be Catholic, but certain traditions of SEMC will continue to be practiced and respected. The downtown hospital will replace the in-patient care now provided at FSLH and SEMC.”

Fact sheet and funding
Currently, MVHS has 574 acute-care beds and 202 long-term-care beds. As of January 2016, the system employs 4,054 full-time equivalents and operates on a budget projecting $532 million in annual revenue. In 2015, the emergency departments treated 77,976 visits, and the hospitals admitted 24,541 patients. The system records more than 36,000 urgent-care visits annually. The MVHS Medical Group has 19 primary-care locations; a Children’s Health Center; a Women’s Health Center; general, orthopedic, and neurological surgeons; as well as a Cancer and Breast Care Center. 

“The proposed 430-bed hospital was originally projected to occupy 830,000 square feet and cost $573 million,” observes the MVHS COO. “The project-steering committee has downsized the original specifications to a 750,000-square-foot, 400-bed facility with a cost of $480 million, which aligns with the project-funding plan. The 25-acre site has ample room for the hospital, a parking garage, separate-office buildings, and still have room for future development. Funding for the hospital will come from three sources: New York State has allocated $300 million to support the project, MVHS will raise another $30 million, and because MVHS has so little debt on the books, we should be able to borrow $150 million. Preliminary talks are already underway with area bankers to create a consortium to authorize a loan.” 

MVHS points out that funding for the project is not based on raising local taxes.

Progress to date and timeline
Planning began in 2015 when the state originally included the $300 million grant in the annual budget. “MVHS retained Hammes Company [of Brookfield, Wisconsin], the leading developer of health-care facilities in the U.S., to help us with the concept,” recalls Scholefield. “The board [of directors] worked with Mohawk Valley EDGE, a landscape-architecture firm, and an engineering firm to review potential sites. In May [of this year], the board also asked EDGE to help with evaluating downtown properties in order to establish a fair-market value before issuing [conditional] purchase offers for potential sites. Work began in late September, and appraisal letters have already gone out to 39 owners of 77 different properties. Half of the sites are owned by the city. To complete the evaluation process in three months, the EDGE retained three appraisers. MVHS officials have also issued a request-for-proposal to 14 architects, 11 engineers, and seven construction managers, all of whom have experience in health-care projects of this scope. Wherever possible, our goal is to use resources available here in the Mohawk Valley. We expect that this phase will take several months to complete.”

All of the above efforts represent just the first phase of the project. “The key now to moving forward is securing the $300-million from the state,” intones Scholefield. “We are currently in the process of completing the ‘Request for Application’ from the state for funding. It will be submitted towards the end of January [2017], and we hope to hear soon … regarding securing the funds: The $300 million lays the foundation for funding project. The [state] Department of Health (DOH) must finalize the disposition of the state grant before planning and design of the new hospital can really begin. The DOH also needs to issue a certificate of need. Completion of this phase is not expected until late in 2017 or in early 2018. The construction phase will take another three years before the new facility opens sometime in 2021 or 2022.”

Other questions
Pattarini and Scholefield are also peppered at their engagement sessions with several other questions. For example, what will happen to the existing MVHS campuses? While the facilities will be repurposed, it’s proposed that certain departments, such as human-resources and the business office, the Cancer Center, the Center for Rehabilitation and Continuing Care Services, and the St. Elizabeth College of Nursing will remain at off-site locations. As for private-investment opportunities in the project, it’s likely that private capital will build and own the parking garage, medical-office buildings, and other aspects of the new medical campus. “We get so many questions like this at our meetings that I have incorporated the most common questions into my presentations,” Scholefield quips.

Scholefield was born in Marcy and attended Holland-Patent High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in professional studies from the State University of New York at Utica/Rome and is a graduate of the St. Elizabeth School of Nursing in Utica, where he earned his RN diploma. Scholefield next earned a master’s degree in health-systems management from the New School for Social Research in Utica. He was employed at SEMC for more than 30 years, where he rose to become the VP of operations. In October 2015, he was named executive VP and chief operating officer at MVHS after serving as its senior VP of operations since March 2014. He is responsible for the operations of the health-care system, overseeing a number of departments and programs as well as working with the executive director and medical director of the MVHS Medical Group. Scholefield and his wife live in Deerfield, and the couple has two grown children.

Pattarini received her associate degree in advertising from Mohawk Valley Community College and a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Utica College. She went on to earn her masters in communications management from Syracuse University and is working towards a Ph.D. degree in conflict analysis and resolution from Nova Southeastern University. She started her business career in 1977 at the United Way in Utica, and two years later joined Mohawk Data Sciences (MDS), where she managed global-corporate communications. MDS, a Herkimer–based company, was famous for inventing the Data Recorder, a magnetic-tape device that superseded punch cards. When MDS was sold in 1986, she moved to The Paige Group on the assumption the new job was a landing place until she found another corporate position. Three decades later, she is still there, having spent the last 20 years guiding the agency as president and CEO.

“The public-information process has been going on for more than a year,” Pattarini reminds this reporter. “Now we’ve ramped up even further, and community input is a multi-year process. The decision to build a new facility and locate it downtown raises multiple questions, and we need to ensure the community has a voice in this major initiative. We will be communicating with all of the stakeholders at each phase of the project, so they can contribute to the planning process.”

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