Tuesday, March 28, 2023

What’s next for the $30 million dollar Wrightsville Avenue hospital facility?

A proposal for the facility offers a mix of workforce housing, medical care and nurses training. Its received positive feedback, but NHRMC has yet to consider it.


The New Hanover Regional Medical Center old orthopedic hospital facility on Wrightsville Avenue. The aging facility is only being partially used, though it is still valued at $30 million. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
The New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s original orthopedic hospital facility on Wrightsville Avenue. The aging facility is still valued at $30 million, with several of the hospital’s services being moved to the NHRMC’s main campus. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

WILMINGTON — As the New Hanover Regional Medical Center moves its orthopedic services to a new $91 million facility, the fate of the aging Wrightsville Avenue hospital remains in question. A new proposal – known as the Safe Haven project – would overhaul the location into a multi-use mix of workforce housing, urgent care, and medical training, but the hospital board has hesitated to weigh in on the project.

In the summer of 2016, the New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) decided to move 68 beds to a new $91 million facility on the main 17th Street campus. Most of the surgical operations will eventually move to the new facility – expected to be fully completed in 2019. However, NHRMC still maintains an emergency hospital at the Wrightsville Avenue location.

The old hospital facility – formerly the Cape Fear Hospital – is appraised by the county at a value of $29,210,400, though it is tax-exempt. However, according to Carolyn Fisher, NHMRC’s director of marketing and public relations, the buildings are in need of considerable renovation.

The Safe Haven proposal

The Safe Haven proposal would re-utilize the current medical facilities for both urgent care and nurse training; it would also add workforce housing. (Port City Daily photo | COURTESY SAFE HAVEN)
The Safe Haven proposal would re-utilize the current medical facilities for both urgent care and nurse training; it would also add workforce housing. (Port City Daily photo | COURTESY SAFE HAVEN)

According to Tom Conway, the Wrightsville facility presents a perfect opportunity for creative reuse. Conway is on the steering committee for the Safe Haven project, which proposes three major uses for the property.

“There’s a gap in affordable housing – workforce housing – for nurses, hospital staff, Cape Fear Community staff, that’s one. There’s still a need for emergency medical care in that area, especially in such close proximity to the University (of North Carolina at Wilmington). And there’s a need for training facilities for nursing students. This project addresses all three,” Conway said.

Safe Haven would re-utilize some of the hospital’s existing structures – and construct several new buildings. It proposes working with several other agencies to provide medical services:

  • NHRMC: provide urgent care, primary care, and retain lab and radiology services
  • Med North: provide urgent and primary care, focusing on indigent care and walk-ins, predominantly Medicaid/Medicare-eligible patients
  • Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center: help supplement services, currently limited to the Jacksonville and Fayetteville areas, for mental health, substance abuse, traumatic brain injuries and other issues

Efforts to date

Conway said the Safe Haven project has studied the emerging field of rehabbed hospital properties. In addition to offers by NC State Professor Thomas Barrie to help provide a site plan for the project, Safe Haven’s steering committee has also looked at seven similar major projects (a brief summary is included at the end of this article.)

“We didn’t come up with this idea out of the blue. Obviously, each one of these projects has unique aspects, but we looked at a lot of successful models,” Conway said.

The steering committee has met with an exhaustive list of local leaders from the judicial and court system – who have an interest in substance abuse programs, Conway said – as well as Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. They have also several interested organizations, including Elderhaus, Med North, Habitat for Humanity, Disability Resource Center, Wilmington Housing Authority, and Smart Start.

A positive response from the county

Commissioner Rob Zapple said he impressed by the project, but that ultimately the decision on what to do with the hospital land was up to the NHRMC Board of Trustees; while the board is appointed by the Board of Commissioners, they act with independent authority.

“There’s definitely a need for workforce housing, for the college, for the hospital, for the area in general,” Zapple said. “It serves a lot of needs — I think it’s an excellent use of the space, but ultimately that decision rests with the (NHRMC) board.”

Commissioner Skip Watkins – who serves as an ex officio member, as a liaison to the Board of Commissioners – said there had been no official consideration of the Safe Haven project.

“My response is that the NHRMC Board has not decided on any direction at this point. Safe Haven’s potential is worthy and well-intended, however at this point the Board of Trustees has had no official discussion on the future of the old Cape Fear Hospital,” Watkins said.

The next move is up to NHRMC

According to Conway, the Safe Haven project has yet to have an official sit down with management at NHRMC.

“It’s time for a community conversation about the best use of this property,” Conway said.

Questions for NHRMC CEO John Gizdic and Vice President of Buildings Tom Walsh were apparently redirected to Fisher.

“With regard to Safe Haven, we appreciate their continued interest in exploring ways to help the community.  We have advised the group it will be at least a few years before the property is available for other purposes and the building would need a substantial investment to upgrade it and develop it for their envisioned purposes. The cost of the expected upgrades is why we decided to focus our resources on building new spaces to serve area patients,” Fisher said.

In response to a question for Walsh about whether or not NHRMC had considered selling the property to a commercial or residential developer, Fisher said, “It’s too early for us to comment on when and whether the property will be available for other uses. We may have services, like the Emergency Department, there for years after the inpatient surgeries move to the new hospital. We’re still evaluating how and where to best deliver those services and the role of that property in the plan. Our commitment to the community is to provide the medical services they need when and where they need them.”

Case studies for similar projects

The Safe Haven project provided the following case studies of similar projects involving re-utilized hospital properties.

  1. University of Vermont Medical Center: Medical center saved $1 million from housing 95 patients in temporary, emergency housing and another $500,000 from housing 32 high-risk patients permanently.
  2. Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Medical Center: 60-unit housing complex immediately had a
    waiting list of 200 veterans, including a high percentage with mental and physical
    disabilities. Many improved in functionality as a result of the stable housing/medical care.
  3. Eastside Health Center in Portland: On track for completion in 2018 with tremendous
    public support and positive media coverage, they pulled together multiple private for-
    profit and nonprofit partners including a pharmacy, urgent care, and acupuncture.
  4. Buffalo Women and Children’s Adaptive Reuse: community engagement throughout
    led to greater competition and a better outcome with the adaptive reuse plan
    representing the highest and best use to the community.
  5. Moore Place in Charlotte: $2.4 million less in billing for the medical center, amounted to a 68 percent reduction in medical services used by the Moore Place residents over the first two years after the development was completed.
  6. Northwest Indiana Veterans Village: 1st “Housing First” development, it was a
    tremendous success. The $414,000 Corporation for Supportive Housing Solutions Fund improved the project’s standing for financing from government agencies and lenders.
  7. UCSF Mission Bay: created a preferential workforce and affordable student housing
    development in partnership with UCSF Medical Center and the University that was so
    successful that it’s being replicated.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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