A new clinic and child care center in Chisholm won the full support of the St. Louis County Board on Tuesday despite squabbling among north and south commissioners, and unknowns about costs.

The board voted 7-0 at its meeting based in Virginia to move forward in partnership with Essentia Health and the city of Chisholm.

The deal makes the county responsible for 1,500 square feet of space, and likely more, in a new clinic — space the county could sublet to social and human service agents, Board Chair Mike Jugovich said, including much-needed mental health services.

“This is an important project for all of Northeastern Minnesota,” Jugovich said.

Commissioner Mike Jugovich
Commissioner Mike Jugovich

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Essentia Health executives and others from Chisholm and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation expressed their confidence and commitment, looking beyond the dirt-floor basement of Essentia’s existing and outdated facility in Chisholm at 400 First St. NW.

“This is a unique and holistic approach we are presenting to you,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, who oversees Northeastern Minnesota as Essentia Health’s East Market president.

They conveyed a vision which would have children arriving and patients being seen by this fall.

“It’s important that we look at what this would mean for the rural people of St. Louis County,” said Tammy Kritzer, senior vice president for Essentia’s East Market.

Kritzer caused some commissioners to bristle by implying the county’s decision was holding up the deal. She said the county was the biggest conveyor of social and human services, and called it out for being the one partner yet to commit to new Chisholm health care infrastructure.

“It’s really hard to hear (county staff) kind of put down as not working hard enough,” said Commissioner Frank Jewell, who represents central Duluth.

Frank Jewell
Frank Jewell

The project was first proposed to the board Feb. 9, when Duluth commissioners voted against it for insufficient details.

Range commissioners applauded the project as tax-generating for having developers own the facilities rather than the hospital or city.

Commissioner Keith Nelson described social workers in Chisholm, a town of 5,000 residents, conducting supervised visits at a laundromat, and in dire need of new, professional working space. He challenged Duluth commissioners to vote against it, calling them "naysayers."

“If you can’t support this just on that one thing alone, I don’t know what to say,” Nelson, of Virginia, said.

"The reason I'm asking questions isn't to be a naysayer," western Duluth Commissioner Ashley Grimm said, calling herself a good steward of county funds.

Ashley Grimm
Ashley Grimm

Pryor asked commissioners to set aside their political differences for the health of rural residents.

"It’s a unique partnership and I think that there’s a lot of win-win-wins here both for Chisholm and the surrounding communities, as well as employers and employees in that we want to keep them healthy and productive," Pryor said.

Essentia Health executives described a deal 18 months in the making: Delta Airlines will donate 2.8 acres of land to the city of Chisholm. It's land on which Delta will continue to operate with an estimated 500 employees along U.S. Highway 169. The facility workers and others, including mine workers, would gain access to the new child care capacity that 9,000 square feet of new space next door would bring.

Essentia would create three new exam rooms in a highly technological new clinic space, featuring telehealth kiosks capable of extending service hours beyond the normal five days a week.

“All of it intended to meet the needs of the community better than we are now,” Kritzer said.

Essentia officials said if Chisholm could care for residents before they get sick in a multifaceted new clinic and community health space, the project has the potential to be "a roadmap for the rest of rural America."

Chris Ismil, community development representative at IRRR, looked ahead to a COVID-19 recovery.

“When people go full time back to work, we’re going to see a huge impact on the child care piece,” he said. “We have to have that facility there.”

The board will vote again on the project at a later date, once a developer, more providers, facility plans and costs are in place. Grimm called for a workshop about the project going forward, and Jugovich agreed that one was in the works. Essentia's goal is to have a "final schematic design" in May, when it also wants to break ground.

The partners will move onto requesting proposals for the project, at which time more will become known about pricing. Essentia executives said they've been through this before.

"We pride ourselves on trying to become a national leader in the delivery of rural health care," Kritzer said, later adding: "We are prepared to bring our resources to bear on this project."