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Children's Dental Services to open $2.5M oral health hub in downtown Duluth

The oral health care center will serve children across Northeastern Minnesota when it opens next year.

Kids help mayor toss dirt.
Adeline Altrichter, 1, center, helps Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, left, as her brother Lucas Altricher, 4, tosses a shovel full of sand during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Children’s Dental Services along Superior Street in Duluth on Monday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

DULUTH — A new, multimillion-dollar dental services center is coming.

The Children's Dental Services Duluth Dental Hub will provide children in the region with oral health care both in the center and through outreach services.

Children's Dental Services plans to open the hub, which is expected to be a $2.5 million investment, during the first quarter of 2024. The building at 25 W. Superior St. will include 10 stations for patients to be seen, and will house the equipment CDS uses during portable care rotations, where equipment is driven across the Northland to reach patients in remote and rural areas.

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Sarah Wovcha, executive director of Children's Dental Services, said the hub will create access for about 20,000 children in northern Minnesota every year who did not have access to routine dental health care before. The CDS hub will offer both preventative services like dental cleanings and checkups and restorative services like fillings and urgent care appointments. It will primarily serve children and pregnant women in St. Louis, Lake, Carlton, Cook, Pine, Aitkin, Koochiching and Itasca counties who are enrolled in public programs such as Medicaid or who are uninsured.

“My family hails from the Iron Range, a community that struggles with poverty and lack of access to affordable health care, and it feels really good on a personal level to be giving back so close to home,” Wovcha said during a groundbreaking ceremony Monday afternoon in front of the future oral health care center.


According to CDS, 15% of children in Northeastern Minnesota counties live in poverty, higher than the statewide average. The Centers for Disease Control reports that children from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities as children from high-income families.

“CDS has an extraordinary record of bringing dental care access to areas where the need is the greatest, and we know these efforts are needed even more now after the pandemic and making up for gaps in services,” said JoAnn Birkholz, executive director of the Medica Foundation.

CDS has offered its services in Duluth schools and across the region since 2008. Duluth Public Schools Superintendent John Magas said the expansion of CDS services is meaningful to him both on a professional and personal level.

“I know that as an educator, it’s important for all of our kids to have their basic needs met so that they can be ready to learn," Magas said. "Mental health care, physical health care and dental health care are all very, very important to us. When we think about the services we need to wrap around our children so that they can be successful, we don’t want students sitting in class embarrassed about their teeth or feeling pain. We want them there, ready to learn, with smiles on their faces.”

Person speaks at podium.
John Magas, superintendent of Duluth Public Schools, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Magas, who grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, said he experienced service gaps in dental health services while growing up that meant he would go several years between cleanings, so he knows what a difference it can make to a child to access this care.

Eileen Crespo, who is a pediatrician, vice president of medical services at Delta Dental of Minnesota, and on the CDS board, said dental health care is critical for overall wellness, especially during child development.

Woman speaks at podium.
Dr. Eileen Crespo, vice president of Medical Services at Delta Dental of Minnesota, speaks about the new dental hub.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“As clinicians, our job is to involve families and educating them about the importance of oral health for young children and starting them on the path of good oral health for their entire lives," Crespo said. "We know that if we can start kids really early, perhaps even before they’re born with good care for their pregnant moms, you can actually pave a path of good health. We know that oral health is intricately involved in overall health and we want every child to be able to have a bright start.”

The health disparities tied to a lack of health care services especially affect people of color, specifically Native American communities.


“The unjust taking of lands inhabited by Indigenous people across Minnesota for millennia has led to Native Americans suffering the worst health disparities of any group in the state of Minnesota," Wovcha said. "It’s our imperative to do all we can to address health disparities through this project.”

Mary Owen, a physician who serves as the associate dean of Native American Health at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said there are very few local dental providers that accept Medicaid, which leads to people needing emergency services for their oral health because they can't get routine dental care.

“I’ve worked as a physician for my own tribe and still work locally, and the number of times that I am so frustrated by the fact that my patients are not getting adequate dental care is too many to count,” Owen said. “I can’t tell you how critical this service is and how well-needed it is.”

Woman speaks at podium.
Dr. Mary Owens, associate dean of Native American Health at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is frustrated by the number of patients with no access to routine dental care.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Stephanie Albert, Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation president, said this new hub will give area families the means to address social determinants of health and will be taking steps to address the workforce shortages in the health care field, specifically for dentists and oral hygienists. The building will have an apartment for dental providers from outside Duluth to stay in if they need to.

Person speaks at podium.
Stephanie Albert, president of Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation, discusses the social determinants of health.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“There’s a big dental workforce shortage in the state, so if you build clinics but you don’t have providers — a dentist or hygienist to do the work — then you can have lines out the door but there’s nobody to give the care,” Albert said.

The project's funding and creation is a culmination of more than 20 organizations across Minnesota, including the Medica Foundation Esther Tomljanovich Strategic Initiative Grant, lead funding for the building from Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation, plus contributions from Otto Bremer Trust, UCare Foundation, Minnesota Historical Society, Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, Mardag Foundation, Ordean Foundation, Head of the Lakes United Way, Minnesota Department of Health, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, and the Northland Foundation.

The Children's Dental Services Duluth Dental Hub will be in the former Global Village space. The building, which CDS bought in 2021, was built in 1894, according to St. Louis County property records.

“It’s a really nice marriage between a mission-based nonprofit and historic revitalization," Wovcha said. "Buildings like this are why people come to downtown Duluth and Canal Park.”


Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said she became aware of the critical needs for expanded dental services for children in Duluth more than 15 years ago. She worked with local community organizations to help meet those needs, and said the CDS Duluth Dental Hub is much needed for both the city and the region.

"We spent many months with this community envisioning a revitalized downtown post-pandemic, co-pandemic," Larson said. "This is fitting all of what we like to see: an active downtown that we are providing services and opportunities to take care of people 18 hours a day. That’s really exciting.”

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This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. May 22 to correct the title of Eileen Crespo, vice president of medical services at Delta Dental of Minnesota. It was originally posted at 6:07 p.m. May 22.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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