Vision Northland construction nears halfway point

Construction on the $900 million medical center has been underway for two years. It is on track to be completed in early 2023 and open to patients that fall.

Project Manager Phil Johnson talks about single inpatient rooms on the ninth floor during a tour of the Vision Northland project in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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As Essentia Health's Vision Northland project nears its second year of construction in Duluth, cranes are at their maximum height as the structural steel and decking of the final floors of the hospital tower come together.

The $900 million project to build a replacement for St. Mary’s Medical Center and clinic is very close to 50% completion, said Phil Johnson, project manager for McGough Construction. Vision Northland, which is Duluth’s largest-ever private investment, broke ground Sept. 11, 2019. Since then, more than 800,000 hours of work have been invested in the project. Construction is on schedule and within the budget.

When completed, there will be 942,000 square feet of new space. The medical center will have 18 stories, plus a helipad and elevator at the top. Fifteen of the floors will be for patient care.

“Minutes and seconds count when a helicopter comes in with a tragedy or trauma,” Johnson said. “The elevators that start at the helipad can go right down to the emergency department, directly to surgery, directly to imaging, the cath lab — wherever it needs to go — and it’s all done with the push of a button in a high-speed elevator.”


Essentia tower rendering
A 15-story hospital bed tower will be constructed as part of Essentia Health's Vision Northland project in Duluth. Contributed / Essentia Health

Robert Erickson, Essentia’s physician lead for Vision Northland, said the plan to build upward is for efficiency as well as to free up space for future development in the downtown and Central Hillside neighborhoods.

RELATED: Essentia to offer shuttles as Phase 2 of Second Street closures begins

Parking for downtown will also become more vertical as the city and Essentia partnered on the construction of a parking ramp anticipated to have 800 parking spaces. The ramp will run in an L-shape along First Street and Fourth Avenue East. The ramp will be used for both Essentia and downtown business parking, and will be connected to the skywalk system.

“There’s a lot of support here for Essentia and this whole medical district, and for the whole downtown business community,” said Pat Mullen, vice president of public policy at Essentia.

Essentia Vision Northland Section Diagram.png
A section diagram of the Vision Northland project, as viewed from Fourth Avenue in Duluth. Contributed / Essentia Health

The main entrance to the new building will be from East Second Street, with additional entrances for the emergency department off of East First Street, clinic entry from Superior Street, and entry through the skywalk across Fourth Avenue East. The outpatient clinic will be on the Superior Street side of the structure on the first five floors, while the Second Street side and the tower will be inpatient treatment floors.


In addition to keeping inpatient and outpatient treatment relatively separate, there will also be separate hallways and elevators for staff and hospitality. This design keeps the general public away from food service, linens and patient and equipment transport. Erickson said operating “behind the scenes” helps with infection control and efficiency.

“It’s not quite Disney World, but it’s close,” Johnson said.

Work continues on the eighth floor of the new Essentia building in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. The area will be used for birthing rooms. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Mock-ups of each style of room were made so staff can experience the layout in a real-life setting to ensure equipment and layouts are functional before finalizing designs and construction. Each floor will have 32 private inpatient rooms.

“When you’re feeling sick, that’s a time of vulnerability, and oftentimes, peace and quiet helps with the healing process,” Erickson said.

“There’s only two rooms that are not private, and those are for twins,” Johnson added.

There are two dual occupancy rooms for twins in the neonatal intensive care unit.


The hospital will have 19 operating rooms, two floors of intensive care units, and 32 emergency rooms — plus three trauma rooms and eight behavioral health rooms. The main concourse, on Level 6, includes the cafeteria, chapel and conference rooms. There is 100,000 square feet of “shell space” for the clinic to grow into the first five floors.

“It’s an open palette for us to redesign that in the future,” Erickson said.

Pat Mullen, left, vice president of public policy at Essentia Health, and Dr. Robert Erickson, center, physician lead at Essentia Health, listen to Phil Johnson, project manager at McGough, during a tour of the Vision Northland project in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Floors are up to 28 feet in height, which is to accommodate for future technology, Erickson said.

“Our vision was to the future,” Erickson said of the project. “Twenty to 30 years from now, you’re needing new technology and being able to adapt. The vision was to create a medical center for the future for decades to come.”

Vision Northland is on track with its completion date of early 2023. Johnson said there are currently 530 workers on site daily, which is expected to increase to 600 as the structure is completed and finishes begin inside. Nearly one in five crew members are from groups considered underrepresented in construction, including women, minorities and veterans.

“This project represents not only our commitment to our patients, but to all those who live and work in the diverse communities we serve,” Erickson said in a release about crew demographics. “All the trade workers involved in this historic project have a huge impact on this state-of-the-art medical center and we are grateful for the opportunity to involve a high number of underrepresented workers on this project.”

Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge can be seen through special bird-proof glass from a delivery room on the eighth floor during a tour of Essentia Health's Vision Northland project Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The building's glass, which encases most of the medical center, has a wave-like pattern of “fritting” to be more visible to birds. The building will have more than 12,000 tons of structural steel, just barely shy of the tonnage used in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

RELATED: Bird-friendly glass to cover new Essentia buildings in Duluth

While the building is anticipated to be complete in the first quarter of 2023, it will open to patients in the third quarter of that year.

“People think it’s a one-day move,” Erickson said. “That patients have breakfast in the legacy hospital and lunch in the new hospital, but there’s a lot of work that goes into that.”

In that time, equipment will be calibrated and staff will be trained with some new streamlined processes to improve efficiency. They will also be given time to adjust to the new floor plans and protocols, Erickson said. Essentia representatives do not anticipate any layoffs.

Workers walk through the area that will be the new cafeteria during a tour of the Vision Northland project in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The future of the current Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center building on East Third Street remains in a discernment process between Essentia and the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica. The Sisters own the land, while Essentia owns the building.

While the construction of Vision Northland has lined up with several other construction projects in downtown Duluth, Johnson said this will be the last bad year of road closures. Essentia will need to shut down Third Street for a couple weeks to connect generators to the new building, but crews are waiting until the other streets around the campus reopen.

“We know it’s been an inconvenience for the city, for Central Hillside, for our patients,” Erickson said. “They’re persevering. We’re still seeing patients in the clinic and we appreciate them taking their time and being patient.”

People in the cafeteria area of the new addition to Essentia Health will be able to walk outside and look over Lake Superior from the sixth floor. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Dr. Robert Erickson, left, physician lead at Essentia Health, talks about the new operating rooms on the seventh floor as Pat Mullen, vice president of public policy at Essentia Health, listens during a tour of the Vision Northland project in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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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