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Essentia envisions multimillion-dollar investment in downtown campus

Buildings of the Essentia Health campus fill this view of Duluth's Central Hillside as seen from the air earlier this year. (News Tribune file photo)

Essentia Health plans to make its largest investment ever in its Duluth campus over the next few years.

"We've made important investments in many other locations, and it's now time to do it here," said Jeff Korsmo, the health system's vice president for operations and administration, during an interview on Wednesday.

Dr. David C. Herman, Essentia's CEO, said it's too early to know exactly how much the health system will spend as it revitalizes the sprawling campus on the east end of Duluth's downtown. But he said it will exceed anything Essentia has spent before anywhere, including the $91 million to build the First Street Building, which was completed in 2006.

Essentia is committed to its present location, Herman said, but the aging campus will get a makeover.

That will include a close look at St. Mary's Hospital.

"It's one of our oldest facilities, and we're sizing up: Can it serve us in the future? Do we have to replace it?" Korsmo said. "But whatever form it takes, it will be St. Mary's and a Catholic hospital with Benedictine sponsors."

What the health system is calling a "major strategic planning effort" was authorized by its Board of Directors, Essentia announced in a news release.

The planning focuses on three areas, it said:

  • Attracting and retaining outstanding employees
  • Improving availability, affordability and quality of care for Essentia's patients and their families
  • Transforming the Duluth campus to a state-of-the-art medical center

Essentia officials already have met with Mayor Emily Larson, the Chamber of Commerce, educational institutions and tourism agencies, among others, to discuss their ideas, Herman said. Additional community outreach is planned in coming months in a planning process that is expected to be completed in 2018.

Herman said it's hoped Essentia's investment will be a catalyst attracting other investments in the community.

There's no timeline, yet, for the Essentia makeover, he said. But he envisions an "aggressive" approach.

"Three to four years from now, I think it will look different," he said.

Added Korsmo: "We'll at least have a lot of — we hope — a lot of cranes."

The reworking is necessary, Korsmo said, in a campus that was developed piecemeal over well over a century and covers an area on an incline from Superior Street to Fourth Street.

"You would have never designed it this way from the start," he said. "It wasn't designed that way from the start; it was pieced together over time. It's time for some of these facilities to be either dramatically improved or replaced."

Essentia would like to bring to Duluth some of the improvements it has made elsewhere, Herman said, such as a "beautiful emergency room" in Fargo, N.D. "We would like to have a facility that can care for patients at some of the most vulnerable times here as well," he said.

The hospital's operating rooms were built at a time when robots were something in "The Jetsons" TV cartoon show, he said.

"Now there's robotic surgery, but that takes a bigger room," he said. "How can you build operating rooms that accommodate the technology and the science that we have right now?"

As some Essentia facilities are possibly "repurposed," they might provide some of the housing that's needed "to make for a better urban experience," overall, Korsmo said.

But Essentia itself won't be in the housing business, Herman added.

"This is part of the conversation we want to have with the community," he said. "We're putting our stake in the ground. We want to invite other people into this conversation."