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This is a preliminary conceptual drawing of Essentia Health's Vision Northland project in Duluth, Minn. The plans are not finalized, so the look of the buildings may change. IMAGE: Essentia Health

Construction Corner: Essentia Health in Duluth plans Minnesota’s biggest medical expansion

DULUTH, Minn. – Three clinics, two hospitals and a rehab center, stairstepping five blocks down a steep hill, meaning that the complex’s lowest street entrance sits about 100 feet below the street entrance at the top. …

That’s Essentia Health’s geographic situation for its existing flagship campus near downtown Duluth. So it’s no wonder that when the talk first turned to a replacement project, Essentia executives seriously considered moving up and over the hill to a flat parcel in neighboring Hermantown, Minn.

But although the current location has its challenges, it also looks out over Lake Superior, meaning that it offers some of the most spectacular views of any city in the upper Midwest.

So the Vision Northland replacement and renovation project will stay in the existing footprint. And what a project it will be: at $800 million, it’ll be Minnesota’s biggest medical expansion, one that will result in a campus that’s both easier to navigate and takes fuller advantage of the site’s wonderful views.

After construction, “our hospitals will be next to each other, and the clinics will be next to each other on a two-block site,” said Scot Ramsey, Essentia’s administrator for facilities.

Essentia grew from a series of mergers between St. Mary’s and Miller-Dwan hospitals and the Duluth Clinic. “With this new project, we’ll keep Miller-Dwan, we’ll have a new St. Mary’s, we’ll have two clinics and a new outpatient facility, all connected. So you’ll easily be able to get from one to the other.”

That’s on the outside. Inside, the new St. Mary’s and other facilities will incorporate the advances that are described in the story on hospital architecture in the August 2018 issue of Prairie Business.

These include separating “front of house” from “back of house” functions, meaning that patients and visitors will use separate halls, elevators and room entrances than will the staff. “That is key to our design,” Ramsey said.

And it’ll be even more powerful in the Duluth project, because the staff functions now are spread out over so many buildings. So, coordinating and consolidating them should bring about tremendous efficiency, collegiality and communication gains, he said.

Here’s another change: acuity-adjustable rooms. “In the past, the patient’s location determined the care,” Ramsey said. In other words, if you were in the intensive care unit, you got intensive care; if you were in a surgical ward, you got pre-op and post-op care.

“Now, we’re going to design universal rooms that are acuity adjustable, so you can have a room be an intermediate care facility, an intensive care unit, a surgical bed or a medical bed,” he said.

Maternity rooms in many hospitals already show how this works. “That’s a great example of acuity adjustable, because you don’t have to move the mom. You have labor, delivery and recovery all in the same room.”

Like several of its counterparts around the region, Essentia also is thinking about tying the new construction into the surrounding neighborhood.

In Grand Forks, for example, Altru Health System’s plans will let the new Altru hospital take advantage of nearby parks and gardens. In Duluth, “as we move away from the current St. Mary’s building, we’ll be freeing up probably two or three or four city blocks for future development,” Ramsey said.

“There could be a grocery store, or housing, or entertainment activities and coffee shops, or all of the above. We think it could really be vibrant, and that if we invest $800 million in our new facility, there could be many multiples of that in the surrounding area over 20 years.”

The appeal of living and working on a hill overlooking Lake Superior is only going to grow over that time, he said. “And if we can grow a vibrant community with a focus on health and wellness, we think that’ll help us not only keep our staff but also attract them to Duluth.”

Essentia hopes to start construction in early 2019 and finish the project in 2022.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business