UPMC sets date for hospital groundbreaking
The Derrick, 2/19/02 By JUDITH O. ETZEL

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UPMC Northwest has scheduled official groundbreaking ceremonies on Wednesday, March 27, for a new $65 million hospital in Cranberry Township.

Although the merger deal between the Pittsburgh-based UPMC health system and Northwest Health Center was signed Nov. 30, no date for actual building was set.

It was expected the groundbreaking, which signals the construction of what is the single largest building project in Venango County's history, would be held sometime in the spring.

It can't come soon enough for Cranberry Township officials who have been dogged by naysayers who insist the hospital project will never fly in the township.

"Contrary to the rumors that the hospital was going back to Reno, and that what some people were saying because no groundbreaking had been scheduled, it's coming here just like we've been saying all along. Hopefully, this official groundbreaking date will get that sort of talk stopped so we can get on with it," said Frank Pankratz, secretary-treasurer for Cranberry Township.

The ceremonial dirt turnover on March 27 is expected to spawn some related commercial development.

"We have some developers and businesses who are just leery about making final deals because they want to be sure the hospital is coming out here. When they see the dirt moved, I think they'll be ready to start making their own projects here," Pankratz said.

Those business enterprises range from shops at the Cranberry Mall to physicians' offices.

"There are hospital-related businesses waiting, like a uniform shop or medical supply business, just until they are sure this new hospital project is actually getting under way," he said.

The new 110-bed hospital will be constructed on a 144-acre parcel off Route 257 en route to the mall. Once construction begins, it will take about two years to build. UPMC Northwest signed a construction agreement Nov. 30 with HBE Inc., a hospital design and build firm in St. Louis, Mo.

To date, surveys, land acquisition, soil studies and more have been completed at the hospital location. What remains to be done is the receipt of state required permits regarding hospital construction and that should be completed soon, according to UPMC Northwest.

In addition to dramatically changing health care delivery services in Venango County, the new hospital also signals a landmark for UPMC. The agreement to build a new health facility as part of a merger deal is a first for the sprawling UPMC system. Northwest is the first hospital in the 19-hospital UPMC network to wrangle such a major building project.

Renovation plans, meanwhile, are being sketched out for the former Quaker State Innovation Center along Route 257. UPMC Northwest recently purchased the building and a nearby warehouse to house a number of non-medical hospital departments, including administrative offices.

In the meantime, a committee is being put together to determine the fate of the Oil City and Franklin hospitals, the Rowe Building in Oil City, a guest house near the West Unit in Franklin, a residential building in Oil City and a number of other properties owned by Northwest.

The only existing building targeted for future use by UPMC Northwest is the West Unit, a cancer center near the hospital in Franklin. That retention, though, is still not certain.

Closing the two hospitals and consolidating health services in a new facility will save an estimated $5 million a year in operating expenses, according to UPMC Northwest.

Both communities have a long history of providing hospital services to its residents. Oil City organized its first hospital in 1892 in response to the fire and flood disaster. Franklin has had a hospital since 1899.

Leading the effort to find tenants and buyers for the hospital buildings and the Rowe building is Richard Castonguay, director of the Venango Economic Development Corp. If no re-use of the properties has been identified one year after the new hospital opens in Cranberry Township, the buildings will be razed.

Details about the groundbreaking ceremonies, which may include musical entertainment, fireworks and more, will be announced closer to the March 27 date.