Altoona Regional Health System plans to close the former Bon Secours Hospital around the end of March, creating a rare kind of development opportunity for the mostly built-out city.
The hospital closure must happen all at once, because its license from the state requires it to offer all the acute-care essentials, including emergency room, operating room, intensive care and monitoring, Altoona Regional Chief Operating Officer Ron McConnell said.
The hospital has been discussing the future of the 14-acre site, and there have been preliminary talks about the possibility of a medical clinic, Altoona Planning Director Lee Slusser said.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Left to right: Registered nurse Connie Wiggins, unit secretary Deb Bower, physician’s assistant Whitney Moritz, certified nurse practitioner student Dave Bicker and Stacia Hillegass stay busy working in the telemetry department of Altoona Regional Health System, Seventh Avenue Campus, formerly Bon Secours-Holy Family Hospital on Monday.
For now, Altoona Regional will continue to keep its finance and accounting offices in the former convent on the tract, now called the Seventh Avenue Campus of the Altoona Regional Health System, McConnell said.
The hospital is closing the former campus because it is finishing up consolidation of acute services at the main campus - the Altoona Hospital campus - on Howard Avenue.
The hospital still needs to get state Department of Health approval for the closing, McConnell said. It also needs to get a final approval for some consolidation construction work at the Altoona campus, before the closing can take place.
The $60 million consolidation has been ongoing for about three years.
"It's all coming to a conclusion at the end of February," McConnell said.
The consolidation has included the $18 million creation of an outpatient facility at Station Medical Center, the $16 million renovation of the former Altoona Center, now part of the main campus, and a variety of other projects there.
They include the $11 million expansion and renovation of the emergency room, new inpatient and observation beds, labs, a pediatric unit, space for inpatient dialysis and an operating room for neurosurgery.
The hospital consolidated "to make the system and services as cost-effective as we can," McConnell said.
The Seventh Avenue Campus still averages about 40 inpatients a day and the emergency room still sees about 32, McConnell said.
It's about half as busy as when Bon Secours and Altoona Hospital merged in 2004, he said.
Once the hospital closes, it won't necessarily pay to wait for one major developer for the site, as the cumulative benefit of a variety of smaller uses could be just as great, Slusser said.
Because it is zoned light industrial, and situated along the major corridor of Route 764, the tract is suitable for many purposes, Slusser said.
The hospital and Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. have joined to plan for redevelopment and have hired an environmental consulting firm, ABCD Executive Vice President Patrick Miller said.
The environmental firm is focusing most of its attention on the tract's old industrial property acquired over the years by the hospital and used as parking - much of it near Ninth Avenue, Miller said.
Some of that ground was connected with the old Puritan mill complex, he said.
The organizations are drawing up a request for proposals for an engineer to map the area, survey the property, check out existing permits, deal with land development requirements, develop a concept plan, estimate the cost of redevelopment and create a subdivision plan, Miller said.
"We're taking a look at the property for the highest and best use," Miller said.
Some buildings will need to be demolished, and others can probably be retrofitted, he said. Some areas now used for parking can become sites for new construction, he said.
Some of the buildings are past their useful life for anything, McConnell said.
Puritan Park, a doctors' office complex near the campus, is not part of the hospital tract, McConnell said.
Potential uses could be health care, commercial, residential and mixed use, and development there could trigger other development in the area, particularly in the former mill, which is vacant, Miller said.
It's not certain yet whether the hospital would keep or sell the property or remain involved with it, McConnell said.
One of the main groups interested in the tract has been told it could remain involved, McConnell said. It would require a significant redevelopment of the campus, he said.
The tract could begin generating property tax for the city, school district and county, Miller said.
It is currently untaxed, because it's held by the nonprofit hospital organization.
Altoona Regional held a closing ceremony for the campus around Christmas, with senior staffers and with officials from when the hospital was Bon Secours and before that Mercy Hospital and from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown - including Bishop Mark Bartchak, McConnell said. There was a lunch and a Mass at the campus.
The actual closing will take place after the first shift on the appointed day, with second-shift employees reporting to their new posts at the Altoona Hospital Campus, McConnell said.
The hospital plans to direct as many patients as possible to Altoona ahead of the closing and has asked admitting physicians to try to avoid admitting patients who will need hospitalized past the closing date, McConnell said.
The few patients remaining on the last day will go by ambulance to the Altoona campus, he said.
The hospital will run newspaper ads announcing the closing and will alert ambulance organizations, McConnell said.
It will take down all "H" street signs referring to the Seventh Avenue Campus on the closing day, McConnell said. It will also gate off the doors, to ensure potential patients don't try to access the hospital.
The closure will enable Altoona Regional to ratchet down mechanical systems to reduce maintenance costs, even with the finance and business office remaining open, McConnell said.
"It's a real big economic development opportunity," Slusser said of the Bon Secours tract. "We don't get that much land in one piece coming available too often."
"The city doesn't have a lot of areas where there are 14 contiguous acres," Miller said.
The "bumping" process to consolidate the staffs is complete, with a position available for anyone who wanted one, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said. Two Seventh Avenue Campus employees took voluntary layoffs, he said.