Industries Healthcare

Filling a vacancy

Several localities have found new occupants for old hospital sites

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Print this page by Robert Burke

There were lots of smiles when the new Martha Jefferson Hospital opened its doors on an 80-acre campus in Albemarle County in August. One reason for the good mood is that was the knowledge that the old hospital building in downtown Charlottesville wasn’t going to sit vacant for long.

In June, the CFA Institute, a nonprofit association of investment professionals, announced that it would move about 400 employees from its current headquarters in Albemarle County to the old hospital building by 2013. That is when a $24.5 million renovation of the building is scheduled for completion.

CFA will occupy about two-thirds of the 200,000-square-foot hospital building, which it plans to transform into an energy efficient, LEED-certified facility. (The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) “This will be an opportunity to build a sustainable building, the way a building should be built today,” says Tim McLaughlin, the association’s CFO.

For the city, the CFA move is a relief, says Aubrey Watts, director of Charlottesville’s office of economic development. Because CFA and the hospital are both nonprofits, the tax impact is a wash. With the hospital leaving, “we lost some really good jobs,” he says. “But my biggest worry was that [site] might sit vacant for a long time… I think we’re very fortunate.”

Finding new occupants for empty hospitals can be difficult. The buildings are old and often difficult to renovate and usually bigger than any single tenant needs. Knocking them down also is expensive. Still, the handful of localities around Virginia that have had to deal with hospital moves have done pretty well in recent years.

Harrisonburg, for example, has faced the same circumstances as Charlottesville. After Rockingham Memorial Hospital announced plans to move, James Madison University bought the old hospital site in 2005. Plans for reusing the site, which is next to the JMU campus and includes nine buildings, have been taking shape since June 2010 when the hospital moved to its new, 254-acre home east of the city in Rockingham County.
JMU already is using some of the hospital space, but the school will be doing major renovations during the next few years. The first task, which was to be completed in October, was demolition of the old hospital’s south tower.

A big part of JMU’s plan for the property is to create a new Student Success Center in the renovated west tower. The center would bring an assortment of student services, such as financial aid, counseling and academic planning, together in one location. That project, which will have a total cost of $62.8 million, also will include a new student health center in the old hospital emergency department, says Don Egle, JMU’s director of public affairs.

Many decisions about how to use the buildings haven’t been finalized, he says, but the school is delighted to have the space. With the old hospital so close to the school “it obviously made a lot of sense for the university to pursue that opportunity,” he says. It was a win for the hospital, too. “Who else comes in Harrisonburg and buys an old hospital building, and if they do, what would they do with it?”

Like both Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, Abingdon found a local buyer for its old hospital. The privately owned Food City grocery chain plans to tear down the former Johnston Memorial Hospital and build its new corporate headquarters on the 15-acre site. The project is expected to be done in mid-2013. The hospital moved to a new $131 million facility in Abingdon in July.

One locality that hasn’t seen such a quick transition is Petersburg. In 2008 Southside Regional Medical Center moved to a new site in the city, but it left behind a 22-acre site that it had occupied since 1953, when it was known as Petersburg General Hospital. The Cameron Foundation, created from the 2003 sale of the 408-bed hospital and other properties to Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, owns the old site. It had the hospital building torn down. For now, the site is largely empty, and will probably stay that way for the near future, says a source familiar with the project. Two facilities, a cancer center and a nursing school, still operate there, and their leases don’t expire for two more years.

The new hospitals are all on much bigger sites, but the smaller properties they leave behind are still big enough to have an impact. CFA’s McLaughlin says one reason his organization chose the old Martha Jefferson building is a chance to be a good corporate citizen. Charlottesville is where the company has stayed since its founding in the 1960s, he notes. “We’re delighted we can take something like this and do the right thing with it,” he says. “Our staff is going to love being downtown.”


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