MaineBiz: New uses considered for the Thayer and Seton units of MaineGeneral (Jan. 9, 2012)

A steady convoy of dump trucks moving earth and pile drivers sinking steel dominate the work site of MaineGeneral’s new $322 million, 192-bed regional hospital in north Augusta. The hospital is scheduled to open in 2014 and will replace three aging MaineGeneral properties: the Thayer hospital and Seton facility in Waterville; and an inpatient hospital on East Chestnut Street in Augusta.

While today’s focus is on the new facility, MaineGeneral will eventually turn its attention to Waterville to redesign and repurpose Thayer, built in 1950, and sell Seton, built in 1965. Hospital officials say a reconfigured Thayer must wait for the completion of the new hospital, but it should be online by spring 2015 when it can anticipate higher patient traffic from its new array of services. The future of Seton, however, is less clear; hospital officials say they are considering auctioning the building that has primarily housed the hospital’s substance abuse services.

Initially, a new, state-of-the-art consolidated hospital in Augusta was not well received by Waterville residents who feared a loss of nearby medical services. But city officials touted the enhanced inpatient care to be offered in the new facility while reassuring residents about the continuing availability of critical care and outpatient services in Waterville, including services at Inland Hospital.

Waterville Mayor Karen Heck says the MaineGeneral proposal has had a long, somewhat contentious past in the city, but officials are now looking forward.

“It was talked about eight or nine years ago, and people weren’t all that enthusiastic about it,” she says of the hospital shift. “This time, it’s a little different. They’re a little unhappy, but people can see the writing on the wall.”

Heck, who formally began her term last week, says she’s focusing her attention on creating economic development based on arts, culture and “an incredible youth movement” in her city, especially downtown, but will stay engaged in discussions with MaineGeneral about the Waterville facilities, particularly the disposition of Seton.

“Those things are pretty far down the priority list right now,” she says, noting the timeline for Thayer’s conversion is still at least two years away. “Returning Seton to the tax rolls would be something we want to pursue, definitely.”

But, she acknowledges, she could also see the building demolished to make way for future redevelopment.

Thayer stands to gain

MaineGeneral officials have acknowledged concerns from observers in Waterville and Augusta, where consolidation plans have stoked fears about job loss, vacant buildings and access to critical care.

Answering Waterville’s concerns that city residents would have fewer health care options, MaineGeneral Health CEO Chuck Hays says outpatient care is an increasingly large part of health care. Thayer will be retooled as an outpatient facility, and will actually see higher patient volumes after the new hospital is open, he says.

“There will be many more people in there than we have now,” he says. “Trends in health care demand much more in the way of outpatient services.”

The largest health care construction project in Maine history, the new hospital is being built on a 160-acre site alongside MaineGeneral’s Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, which opened in 2007. The new hospital will consolidate inpatient services currently offered in Augusta and Waterville, while also taking in more than 60 outpatient offices and other services currently offered in nine communities, including Waterville.

Funded through a $35 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation and more than $280 million in 30-year bonds through the Maine Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority, the new hospital won the approval of the state’s Certificate of Need office in November 2010. Touted as a way to attract skilled doctors, the Augusta facility will feature all private inpatient rooms, 10 operating rooms and new imaging and diagnostic technologies.

This spring, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announced federal transportation money to reconfigure Exit 113 on Interstate 95, which does not currently offer direct access to the new hospital site. The road changes include new traffic circles to allow access to the site from the north- and southbound interstate. That allayed concerns from Waterville residents — not to mention regulators — that the new hospital could be easily accessible in critical transports from Waterville.

Officials also have mentioned that the Thayer project will add dozens of jobs in construction, design and related areas in 2014 and 2015, and the sale of Seton has the potential to add up to $9.5 million to the city’s tax roll.

Changing the delivery of care

The facility will be renamed the Thayer Comprehensive Outpatient Center and include services such as X-rays and lab work in addition to a full-time emergency room.

Hays stresses that MaineGeneral sees Thayer as a key element in the company’s footprint, providing a bulk of the care demanded by its customers.

“The biggest thing is that outpatient care continues to be a big growth area in health care,” Hays says. “With the technology that’s out there, more things are being done on an outpatient basis. And that trend is continuing to grow, especially with an aging population. So it’s critical we have comprehensive outpatient services for the Waterville area.”

Hays says other examples of outpatient services to be offered at the Thayer facility include renal dialysis, physical and occupational therapies — some of which are currently offered at the company’s Seton campus.

“The Thayer project is as critical as the new regional hospital,” MaineGeneral spokeswoman Diane Peterson says, “as most folks receive most, by far, of their health care on an outpatient basis.

“Most of the services folks are accustomed to receiving, including a 24/7 emergency department and day surgery, will remain in Waterville,” she says. Other MaineGeneral services will continue to be offered at facilities in Oakland’s FirstPark complex, as well as other locations in Waterville and Fairfield.

MaineGeneral is setting aside $10 million of the $322 million project for the Thayer reconfiguration. Hays says the goal is to “use Maine resources for the renovations,” which will include design, architectural and construction work. Hays said that of $150 million in contracts awarded for the Augusta hospital thus far, nearly $145 million has gone to Maine contractors.

In addition to the redesign of Thayer, MaineGeneral also is touting the possibility of returning the Seton property to a nonexempt commercial use.

“We’d really like to get both of those properties onto the local property tax rolls,” Hays says, referring to the Seton and Augusta facilities slated to close. Hospital officials are examining an auction process for the disposal of the Seton property, a 153,000-square-foot facility built in 1965 and currently assessed for tax purposes at $9.5 million, he says.

Meanwhile at Thayer, Hays says preliminary designs for the new outpatient center have just started with SMRT Architects, the Portland-based company designing the new Augusta hospital.

With the focus now on the Augusta hospital, redesigning Thayer will be done in a tighter time frame, the bulk of which is still well in the future. “Because some of the services at Thayer will be taken up at the new hospital, one has to come after the other,” Hays says of the timing.

Design concerns at the new Thayer will include patient flow and timeliness of care.

“Being able to see many more patients means more lobbies, waiting areas, signage,” Hays says. “We also want to design a continuity. What services go well together? What services will a patient get together? It’s important, with so many different practice areas [to design space that makes it easy for patients to move around.] Flow and timeliness will be important.”

The Seton unit’s future

At Seton, Hays says it may make more marketing sense to auction the property than to list it on the commercial market.

“We’re discussing with a group whether we ought to pursue the normal real estate process or go to auction with the property,” Hays says, noting construction of the new hospital does not depend on revenue from a sale of Seton.

“There’s certainly a benefit to developers to be able to buy immediately (via auction). They would take ownership and then be able to lease space,” Hays says, indicating MaineGeneral would then become a tenant while it moved Seton’s services to other hospital facilities. “They’d also have more time to plan and get tenants for that space.”

The commercial real estate market in Waterville has a number of vacant properties and plenty of space for lease, including a 9-acre commercial site with 26,472 square feet along Kennedy Memorial Drive and several 40,000-square-foot spaces within the refurbished Hathaway Creative Center.

To view the original article at MaineBiz, click here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s