Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hospital move brings big change to Trinity, New Port Richey

TRINITY — Commercial real estate broker Heidi Tuttle-Beisner will get two benefits when Community Hospital pulls up stakes and moves its operations Tuesday to a new state-of-the-art campus with all private rooms.

"My husband is having surgery there on the 21st," said the owner of Commercial Assets Partners Realty of Trinity. "It'll be in a brand new OR."

Besides the personal convenience, the move has proven a boon for an area that once was home mainly to cow pastures.

"It's easy to get to for Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties," Tuttle-Beisner said. "And in spite of the weakness in the commercial real estate market, it's definitely helped bring more stability and strength in that area. We don't have a lot of vacancies that exist in other parts of the county. Everybody's been waiting for years for this to happen, and it will be a big day."

The significance of the move isn't lost on hospital leaders as they plan for a media blitz and rope off areas for news photographers. Access will be restricted during Tuesday's move, but the public will be able to visit on Wednesday.

"We understand the uniqueness of opening a new hospital, and we look forward to sharing Medical Center of Trinity with our community," CEO Leigh Massengill said when announcing the move date.

The hospital's move has been in the planning since 2002 when it won a legal battle with rival Morton Plant North Bay to leave the city New Port Richey and move closer to the neighborhoods with names like the Champions Club, which boast million dollar homes.

The hospital isn't the only business expecting to reap profits.

Restaurants along the State Road 54 corridor near Little Road, which already have done well, are preparing for more crowds once the hospital employees and families of patients start coming in.

"We're looking at starting a delivery service for them," said Christo Papapanos, owner of Christo's Greek cuisine restaurant in the shopping center next door. He expects to add several employees to his staff of 15 to 20 once the delivery service gets off the ground.

"A hospital rounds out the community of Trinity," said County Administrator John Gallagher, who grew up in west Pasco and saw Trinity rise from nothing to a hub of west Pasco. "We already know it has started to bring other doctors' offices here. That's good economic development for the county."

However, not everyone is feeling the love.

For the city of New Port Richey, it means the loss of its largest taxpayer, along with 300,000 square feet of empty building. Medical Center of Trinity will continue to use about 100,000 square feet of the old hospital space for its psychiatric ward, as well as physical and occupational therapy.

"What are we going to do without a hospital?" said Carl Serpe, who has operated the Leaning Tower of Pizza across from the street from Community Hospital for 36 years. The area needs more hospitals, not fewer, he said. Emergency rooms at Morton Plant North Bay and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point are already too crowded and too far away from downtown, he said.

"A lot of people don't have any family to help them," he said. "A lot more people may lose their lives."

The way Serpe sees it, Community should have kept the New Port Richey hospital and built a smaller campus in Trinity that could grow with that area.

"We need a hospital over here," he said.

Besides creating medical hardship, the lack of a hospital, combined with the overall recession, will hurt the small businesses, like his pizza parlor, that depend on hospital traffic to survive, he said.

"I won't go out of business, but I'll have to go down in payroll," said Serpe, who now employs about 15 people. He said crime has risen in recent years and will only get worse with more vacant buildings.

Over at Grandma Sally's diner a bit farther north, owner Frank Kontis fears he'll have to shut down one day if things don't improve. Besides the restaurant with the window boxes of faux red and white poinsettias, the strip center houses only a florist, a martial arts studio and a tattoo parlor. "For rent" signs appear in about five other windows.

"It gets to a point where working another 16-hour day just to pay the bills isn't worth the trouble," he said.

Kontis said the city is partly to blame.

"They said they'd do something, put some lights up out here," he said. "They haven't done anything."

City leaders say they are working on a plan to redevelop the old hospital site.

"We've been pushing as hard as we can to get into this kind of process," said New Port Richey City Manager John Schneiger. He said the city likely would hold several town meetings to get input from residents and business owners as to what might be a good use for the 25 acres.

The city's strategic redevelopment action plan calls the old hospital property "important" and says much of it can be developed for housing, offices or quasi-medical facilities such as senior living communities.

As for whether the old building could be reused, that's not likely, he said.

"It's a 40-year-old building, so it's probably going to be somewhat of a challenge," Schneiger said. "But all options will be on the table."

City Council member Bob Langford said he thinks the building will have to be razed.

"We looked into making that a veterans hospital, but the VA didn't express any interest in that," he said. "We're listening to anybody that has any kind of valid ideas for its reuse."

One city entity that is in more of a celebratory mood is rival North Bay, which sees opportunity in being the only game in town and changing its image as the lesser of the two hospitals.

"It used to be a rinky dink hospital," said pizza parlor owner Serpe. "But it's expanded."

North Bay administrator Hal Ziecheck admitted that North Bay was perceived that way about 15 years ago before it was bought by Morton Plant in 1999 and later became part of the BayCare system, a 10-hospital network that spans the Tampa Bay area.

Anticipating Community's move and seeking to serve the city as its sole hospital, North Bay has invested $80 million into its facilities and will surpass that, Ziecheck said.

In 2010 North Bay completed a $49 million expansion that nearly doubled the hospital's size. It followed up with an expanded emergency room that it strategically located next to cardiovascular labs to get patients the help they need quickly.

Last fall, North Bay broke ground on bigger operating rooms to better accommodate the robots that are becoming the norm for gynecological and urological surgeries. The new OR represents a $20 million investment.

"What our doctors are seeing is an investment in the hospital," Ziecheck said. "They always rave about the quality of our nursing. Now they can see the technology and facilities are stepping up. They're saying this is a different hospital."

Ziecheck said the hospital expects to further expand the ER to accommodate the extra patients left with only one choice in town. In March, it plans to open an urgent care center at U.S. 19 and Floramar Terrace.

"That's close to where Community Hospital was and it'll relieve some of the pressure and meet the needs of the community better," Ziecheck said.

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