University of Minnesota scouts sites for new academic health care center in Duluth
As it waits for design funding from the state, the U of M is already looking at its Hillside neighborhood options.
DULUTH — The University of Minnesota is still waiting to receive a needed $12 million nod from the Minnesota Legislature to proceed with its plans to build a new academic health care center in downtown Duluth, but it sent an advance team Friday to scout prospective sites for the facility.
The school would serve as an academic health care center and pharmacy school, where local physicians, researchers, teachers and students can all collaborate to deliver the highest level of care.
“We’re trying to get the pre-design done,” said Myron Frans, vice president of finance and operations for the university system. “First, we need to decide what goes into the building — all the programming needs. The second thing we need to figure out is where to put it.”
And Frans said that remains an open question, as he and his team of facility experts toured one prospective site on the 600 block of East Fourth Street on Friday morning. He would not say how many sites are in the running, but he acknowledged that both St. Luke’s and Essentia Health had offered options, including the ground now occupied by St. Mary’s Medical Center, which is slated for demolition soon after Essentia completes work on a $900 million replacement hospital.
Frans also would not speculate on the cost of the project, acknowledging only that it would be quite substantial — orders of magnitude greater than the $12 million the university has requested from the state of Minnesota, plus the $6 million the school expects to draw from its own coffers to fund vital design work.
The U of M isn’t thinking small. Frans said the facility would likely need a site at least as large as the 1.2-acre plot he was visiting that morning.
“We’re thrilled the university wants to invest here and be a part of our Hillside neighborhood,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said.
If lawmakers get behind the project, as Frans remains optimistic they will, a new UMD academic health care center could begin operations as soon as 2025 or more probably 2026, considering the scale of the project, he said.
“This project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Frans said. “We’ve seen the disparities that exist in our health care delivery system, and this is an opportunity to address those directly, here.”
Larson referred to the project as potentially “transformational.”
Frans said the academic health care center proposal is moving forward at what looks to be a fortuitous time.
“Frankly, when we saw that the state has $9 billion in funds available, we thought: Well, this is the right time to make this once-in-a-lifetime leap and really accelerate the project,” he said.
Larson said she began discussing prospects for the University of Minnesota to enlarge its medical presence in Duluth at the same time the city was approaching the Minnesota Legislature, seeking state bonding funds to help fuel the growth of the city’s medical district. In 2019, Duluth ended up receiving $98 million in state funding for public infrastructure to support the expansion of St. Luke’s and Essentia at a time when the city’s two largest health care providers were laying plans to invest more than $1 billion, combined.
“At the time, I was looking at what else was possible,” Larson recalled, explaining that it only made sense to leverage additional resources that could help build Duluth into an even stronger medical care center.
Frans said the opportunity to partner with Duluth proved compelling.
“Part of our land grant mission is to provide services to the entire state. And we really feel this is an opportunity to fulfill our mission to provide high quality health care for all Minnesotans,” he said. “We want people to come to Duluth and get their health care. They don’t need to go to the Twin Cities or other places.”
But in addition to the investment in new facilities, Duluth is going to need more health professionals to fulfill its growing regional role as a care provider, and a new academic health care center could help provide that pipeline.
“If we can provide the right infrastructure and support, we think people will come to Duluth. And we do think this is truly an attractive place to practice medicine, to be a nurse or a health care practitioner,” Frans said.
“To me, it’s so exciting, because this is a foundational building block development that we’re talking about. It’s not short-term. It’s diversified. It’s generational. It’s meeting a need, but it’s also very visionary,” Larson said. “We’re really grateful, and our region deserves it.”