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New medical facility step toward hospital

As a crowd of about 150 peered across a 20-acre piece of land off State Route 141 near U.S. 52 during a ceremony Wednesday, they saw homes, Cooke’s Farm Center and a wooded area.

Those who were showing it off saw something else.

Lawrence County Health Care Futures, LLC, a consortium of local development entities and health care specialists, officially announced plans to build a medical complex that could eventually create about 200 jobs.

But what that means exactly isn’t clear. The leaders of the project had optimism that was measured, as evidenced by repeated reminders that there is no guarantee for a full-service hospital, but that such a facility is the goal of all parties involved.

“We’re proceeding carefully,” said Doug Korstanje, director of marketing and community relations for St. Mary’s Medical Center.

St. Mary’s joins the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization, the Lawrence Economic Development Corp., ClearPoint Companies, and the Lawrence County Port Authority as the project’s partners. Other entities involved in the project are Ironton City Council, the Lawrence County Commission and the Ironton Port Authority.

Representatives of the LLC announced a two-phased plan, the first of which is to construct a family medical center with extended urgent care hours with the possibility of other services, including an imaging center, surgery center and other specialty clinical space. Construction on Phase 1 will begin at an unspecified date in 2009.

The phase, which could result in nearly 100 jobs, will begin with land acquisition, final design and site development.

Dan Smith, co-owner of ClearPoint Companies along with Dan Sheehan, said funding has already been secured for the land acquisition. The initial investment is $2 million with another $18 million possible as other parts of Phase 1 fall into place.

Smith said physicians will play a key role in the direction of the health care at the location. He said at large part of the project’s financing will come from physicians and private investors. He said other financing will be possible despite the turbulent market.

“Physicians are going to have to see it’s a real project and not a lot of hype. Physicians want to have a part in the direction and leadership and they will have that. And they do not have to be an investor to practice here,” Smith said. “People love health care. If we were building a shopping mall we could not get financing. But we can with health care … under the right conditions.”

Phase 2 of the project is a pursuit of a $60 million full-service hospital that would include patient towers, an emergency room and other facilities. The group said Phase 1 needs to be successful for Phase 2 to become a reality.

D.R. Gossett, executive director of the local CAO, said it is realistic to believe the county will again have a full service hospital.

“If everything we expect to happen happens, we will get somewhere into Phase 2 that we’ll be happy with,” he said. “In some of the early models, we were looking at a 55-bed hospital. I think that’s achievable.”

The announcement was a much-anticipated one since the demise of River Valley Health Systems. That hospital closed its doors in 2001 and leaders have made efforts since then to return a hospital to the county.

Gossett said that day is now closer.

“We knew government wasn’t going to have a magic wand. We put a team together and now that vision and model has become a reality,” he said. “This facility will be a vision of what a doctor wants when he or she is providing care. It’s no longer a model. It’s growing legs and it’s walking.”

Of the initial $2 million investment, Lawrence County Commission President Doug Malone said it will contribute about $400,000.

“I would say we’re committed to about 1/5th of it,” Malone said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of risk because of (the value of) the property.”

Ironton City Council President Bob Cleary said the city’s contributions will come on the back end with tax contributions. Phase 1 is expected to create about 70 jobs and those employees will pay the 1 percent city tax, but Cleary said the city will donate 50 percent of those revenues back in order to help spur future growth.

Cleary said there are numerous opportunities for the city because of the project.

“Combined with the new schools, it will increase development opportunities in Ironton,” Cleary said. “This will be a real shot in the arm for Ironton. There will be tremendous spinoffs of other businesses.”

Cleary said he believes the addition of the medical complex will make landing a hotel in Ironton easier.

“We’re hoping to get ahead of the game when they start Phase 1,” Cleary said. “That will be an indication we are on our way.”

Dr. Bill Dingus, executive director of LEDC and the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, agreed that many other businesses could follow the medical complex.

“Looking at the best industries of the future, they are knowledge industries,” said Dingus, who said he sees a natural partnership with the medical complex and Ohio University Southern. “And there are none better than health care. The spinoffs are unimaginable.”

Gossett said a hospital would open up many doors.

“Having a hospital, versus not having a hospital, makes you a more viable community. For industries that want to come here with no hospital, that means they have insurance issues,” Gossett said. “It seems like the wind is blowing in our direction right now.”

Ironton City Council and the Lawrence County Commission began the event with a joint session. Both bodies passed resolutions offering their financial assistance and future cooperation. During the meeting Ralph Kline, the CAO’s community development director, explained aspects of the project to those in attendance.