This September marks the one-year construction anniversary of Essentia Health's Vision Northland project.

It's a year that's seen thousands of tons of steel beams erected, cranes rise in the skyline and cubic yards of concrete poured. The Duluth-based health care system is in the midst of the three-year, $900 million project — the largest private investment in Duluth's history — to construct a new St. Mary’s Medical Center and clinic.

“On this one-year anniversary of construction, with the first scoop of soil and every subsequent beam raised, Essentia Health envisions our future facility enhancing patient care, along with improving the health care experience of patients and staff,” Robert Erickson, Essentia’s physician lead for Vision Northland, said in the news release.

The project’s cost increased by $100 million over the past year, primarily due to the project growing larger in size. The resulting longer construction timeline and changes in market conditions caused project financing to increase.

The project began with demolition. Crews demolished a parking ramp on the corner of Fourth Avenue East and Second Street in September. Then, in October, the skywalk connecting Essentia to the city parking ramp was removed.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

A group of workers watch as two cranes lower the metal framework of the skywalk that crossed over Fourth Avenue East between Superior and First streets last November. The skywalk was removed as part of Essentia Health’s Vision Northland project. (File/ News Tribune)
A group of workers watch as two cranes lower the metal framework of the skywalk that crossed over Fourth Avenue East between Superior and First streets last November. The skywalk was removed as part of Essentia Health’s Vision Northland project. (File/ News Tribune)

But, before steel and concrete could be built, thousands of cubic yards of rock had to be removed from the site first.

Since December, over 41,000 cubic yards of rock were blasted and removed from the construction site. This made way for 2,300 tons of steel and 17,500 cubic yards of poured concrete, the release says.

In recent months, curious passers-by have watched a steel structure fill the construction site. This steel makes up the shell of the clinic.

When complete, the clinic will stand eight stories tall.

However, the tower next door will rise much higher. It will fill the skyline with 15 stories of glass windows — making it Duluth's tallest building and transforming the city's skyline. Crews will start placing steel for the tower later this month, and they'll continue until the final floor is built in November 2021, according to the release.

A 15-story hospital bed tower will be constructed as part of Essentia Health's Vision Northland. (Courtesy of Essentia Health)
A 15-story hospital bed tower will be constructed as part of Essentia Health's Vision Northland. (Courtesy of Essentia Health)

Essentia is in the midst of leading a nationwide effort to increase bed capacity in intensive care units, which will hopefully include Vision Northland.

It's seeking $1 billion in federal funding to support the creation of the "ICU Readiness Fund." This would bring 2,500 ICU beds to hospitals in 10 regions across the nation, according to News Tribune reporting.

Essentia is hopeful that $101 million of this funding will be directed to its ongoing project. This would bring the hospital's total ICU-capable beds from the planned 64 to 288.

The increase in beds would address a present need for greater ICU capacity resulting from the pandemic, as well as needs that could arise from future pandemics.

There's plenty of work ahead for crews, as construction is planned to wrap up early in 2023. Doors will open to patients in the third quarter of that same year, the release says.

In the coming months, steel trusses will be installed over First Avenue. In October, the concrete foundation will be finished.

Construction crews have built around 26,000 square feet each month – logging over 210,000 hours. Over half of the tradespeople working on the project belong to local unions, with nine subcontractors located in Duluth and four headquartered in Superior.

Workers from A&B Welding & Crane Service assemble the tower the first of three tower cranes in January at the Essentia Health Vision Northland construction site in Duluth. This is a 281-ton crane with a 170-foot swing radius that will be at 250 feet above Superior Street. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Workers from A&B Welding & Crane Service assemble the tower the first of three tower cranes in January at the Essentia Health Vision Northland construction site in Duluth. This is a 281-ton crane with a 170-foot swing radius that will be at 250 feet above Superior Street. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

"We are very fortunate to work with such a great team that stresses both safety and quality," Phil Johnson, project manager for construction management company McGough Construction, said in the release.

Only one minor injury and four first-aid injuries have been reported, earning a first-year safety record from the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In March, Essentia and the city of Duluth reached an agreement to build a new, publicly funded parking ramp that would complement the project.

Funding for the parking ramp, which could house up to 1,400 parking spaces, is part of a nearly $100 million package the Minnesota Legislature approved last year.

Using the state-appropriated fund, the city will reimburse Essentia for construction, design and property purchase costs related to the parking ramp construction. It will reimburse up to $36.4 million.

McGough Construction project manager Phil Johnson (left) listens as Dr. Robert Erickson describes what is happening with the Essentia Health Vision Northland project in Duluth during a tour of the site Wednesday.  (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)
McGough Construction project manager Phil Johnson (left) listens as Dr. Robert Erickson describes what is happening with the Essentia Health Vision Northland project in Duluth during a tour of the site Wednesday. (Clint Austin/caustin@duluthnews.com)

Once construction is complete, the city will own and operate the ramp and Essentia will pay for ramp use, the News Tribune reported.

To make way for the parking ramp, Essentia purchased the five properties last fall and will demolish its 19 housing units.

It has helped residents find new housing and committed up to $1.44 million for One Roof Community Housing's Brewery Creek Apartments, a project bringing 52 affordable apartment units to the Central Hillside neighborhood.

Experts told the News Tribune earlier this year that the expanding medical district, which also includes developments at St. Luke's hospital, could spark other development, like businesses.

The Vision Northland project also reduces Essentia's footprint in the neighborhood, as they build vertically. This will allow for more development in the Central Hillside neighborhood.