Medical services represent one of the pillars of Winchester area economy

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Print this page by James Heffernan
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Shenandoah University’s new Health & Life Sciences Building
Photo courtesy Shenandoah University

Just east of U.S. 50 in Winchester, a new $25 million Health & Life Sciences Building is rising at Shenandoah University on a vacant lot between the Alson H. Smith Jr. Library and Mary M. Henkel Hall. Once completed, the 71,000-square-foot building will anchor the south corner of the university’s main campus and combine facilities for undergraduate students in the health sciences under one roof. 

More than just a consolidation and reorganization of people and programs, the new building will serve as a symbol of Shenandoah’s commitment to health care and of the importance of this industry to the region.

About half of the private university’s 2,400 undergraduate students are seeking careers in the health sciences. “We have a number of strengths here at Shenandoah, but one is certainly in the health professions and health sciences,” says the university’s president, Tracy Fitzsimmons. “This building will allow us to bring all of our undergraduate health programs back onto the main campus, so we can better serve our students.”

Shenandoah’s health programs, which also include a pharmacy school, help feed the region’s dominant health-care provider, Winchester-based Valley Health System. With more than 8,600 workers, health care is the Winchester area’s largest local employment sector, accounting for 15.5 percent of the labor force, and the outlook for the industry remains favorable, according to the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission. The field is a pillar of the local economy, along with retail, government and manufacturing.

Thanks to this diverse industry base, the Winchester area serves as an anchor for employment in the northern Shenandoah Valley and is successfully fighting the label of a “bedroom community” for Northern Virginia. Nearly 70 percent of local residents work in Winchester-Frederick County, and the region is home to a large “in-commuting” population, attracting more than 10,000 people from outside its borders for work.

Valley Health a big employer
Designed by Earl Swensson Associates of Nashville, Tenn., Shenandoah’s Health & Life Sciences building will house athletic training, biology, chemistry, nursing, respiratory care and pre-health programs, some of which now are located on the campus of Winchester Medical Center across town.

Academic spaces in the new building will include standard and active-learning classrooms; teaching labs; a 2,000-square-foot, 16-table cadaver lab; a nursing skills lab and simulation suite; a large meeting space; and cutting-edge classroom technologies for active learning. The rest of the building will consist of faculty offices, study spaces and community areas.

Once nursing and respiratory care move from their current facilities on Winchester Medical Center’s campus into the new building, that will create space for Shenandoah’s graduate programs in occupational therapy, physician assistant studies and physical therapy, which are currently housed off campus.

General contractor Howard Shockey & Sons of Winchester broke ground on the project in June. The building is expected to open in the fall of 2014.

“We’re moving into an era in which we’ll see many more chronic illnesses as people live longer, and that is creating a need for primary care,” says Kathryn Ganske, dean of Shenandoah’s Eleanor Wade Custer School of Nursing. “It will also allow for the types of interdisciplinary interactions that our students are wanting and employers in the health professions are looking for.”

One of those employers is Valley Health, which operates six hospitals in northwest Virginia and eastern West Virginia.

With more than 5,300 employees and a medical staff of over 500, Valley Health, including Winchester Medical Center, stands as the area’s largest employer. “This fact, coupled with health care’s above-average annual wages, makes it a central partner in the success of our economy,” says Patrick Barker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission. “The mere size and depth of services provided by Valley Health provide a unique attribute for our community compared with our competitors. This partnership has been extended into workforce training within the local public school systems.”

In July, Valley Health announced plans to form a strategic alliance with Northern Virginia provider Inova Health System in the areas of clinical research, information technology, population health and clinical service delivery.

Valley Health President and CEO Mark Merrill says the move is a result of the strategic planning process he and his board of trustees went through in early 2012. “We decided we would to like to remain independent and grow our clinical enterprise,” he says, “but we also recognized the need to explore partnership opportunities that would position us favorably in a dynamic and changing time in health care.”

Valley Health brings a strong market position, a top-five hospital in Virginia in Winchester Medical Center, and expertise in rural health care to the relationship, Merrill says, while Inova offers “a good community, not-for-profit partner, financially strong, with very good clinical programs, including some programs we don’t currently have.”

The two health systems will work together to implement an electronic health records system; provide mutual access to services and physicians, particularly in the areas of cardiovascular services, neurosciences, orthopedics, oncology, trauma, and women’s and infant care; and collaborate on research projects and clinical trials. They have also committed to population health management projects in their respective service areas. These programs reward health systems for keeping local residents out of the hospital through education, special events and access to community wellness centers.

“This innovative alliance will enable both of our organizations to do more, in a shorter period of time, and at less cost, than would have been possible if pursued alone,” Merrill says.

Valley Health and Inova will keep separate books, separate brands and maintain distinct governance structures. Both organizations say no jobs will be affected.

Expansion continues
The Winchester-Frederick County economy is coming off a banner year in 2012, with more than $180 million in private investment and 800 new jobs, with the vast majority of the activity coming from existing businesses.

Leading the charge were Navy Federal Credit Union and Kraft Foods. The credit union recently held a grand opening for an addition to its Winchester campus, which will bring 400 new customer-service jobs. Kraft Foods invested $25 million in its Frederick County plant to increase production of Capri Sun beverages. Also in 2012, British manufacturer M&H Plastics, which makes custom packaging for the personal-care and health-care markets, completed a $6.2 million expansion at its local facility, creating 20 jobs.

While the numbers haven’t been quite as robust this year, the local expansion trend continues.

H.P. Hood, one of the largest branded dairy operators in the United States, plans to invest $84.6 million in its Frederick County operation. The Lynnfield, Mass.-based company will expand the local facility to increase ultra-high-temperature production capacity, creating 75 jobs. The project represents the largest investment by an expanding company in Frederick County in 30 years.

In addition, Minneapolis-based Miller Milling is investing $30 million in its Frederick County flour mill. The company is part of an extensive local food-processing cluster, which includes New World Pasta, Kraft Foods, H.P. Hood, National Fruit Product Co. and Royal Crown Bottling.

The Frederick County mill, which opened on the same day as its twin facility in Fresno, Calif., in 1993, will add a fourth production unit, increasing capacity by more than 36 percent. “These projects are primarily meant to accommodate the growth of existing customers and meet their needs,” John C. Miller, president and CEO of Miller Milling, said in a news release. “Right now we don’t have the capacity to meet our customers’ demand.”

On the horizon, McKesson Corp.,  a Fortune 500 medical and surgical supply company, is building a $36.9 million distribution center in the county near Clear Brook, just a few miles from the West Virginia line. The facility will employ 205 people and serve McKesson’s clients all along the East Coast.

Indeed, the region’s strategic location and transportation network — with the ability to reach 50 percent of the U.S. population within 500 miles and overnight access to nearly two-thirds of the industrial activity in North America — have been pivotal to its economic growth. “They contribute greatly to Winchester-Frederick County getting considered for business locations and expansions,” Barker says.

Reviving business icons
The Winchester-area business community also is protecting its roots.

In March, A.G. Capital LLC, led by David C. Gum, purchased the iconic Winchester furniture company Henkel Harris. Manufacturing at the 300,000-square-foot plant on South Pleasant Valley Road shut down at the end of last year.

“We had heard that they were having some trouble, and then we read about it in the paper in November like everyone else,” Gum says. “Soon after looking at it, we thought we could turn it around. Our first [pitch] wasn’t successful, but in the spring, the previous owners came back to us and offered a deal that we thought was viable, so we went forward.”

Gum felt it was important to try to save the business, founded by Winchester residents Carroll and Mary Henkel in 1946 and passed down to their son, Bill. “I don’t know of any better furniture on the market than Henkel Harris,” Gum says. “The workers are true craftsmen. You can’t import it. There are not a whole lot of furniture companies left in the U.S., certainly not of this quality.”

Although the business continued to make fine products through the years, the market and the distribution channels changed, Gum says, creating the need to cut costs and streamline manufacturing. The company is now leaner, with around 60 employees. “We couldn’t bring everybody back,” Gum says. “We had to go with a smaller, more versatile staff. Now our teams follow the furniture through the entire process.”

The company held an open house in September that drew 1,800 area residents, and Gum says he expected to close the month of September “in the black.”

In 2006, the Gum family saved another local business icon, National Fruit Product Co., makers of the White House line of applesauce, apple juice, apple vinegar, apple slices and apple butter. The processor has been in Winchester since 1915.

Career Awareness Tours
“Our community has a proven track record of commitment to business,” Barker says. “This commitment aims to grow existing businesses and welcome new quality companies and, more importantly, provide continual resources and assistance to secure their future.”

To support the growth and health of the area’s existing businesses, the Winchester-Frederick County EDC employs a seven-person business call team, made up of retired business executives who call on area industries on a rotational basis, conduct surveys and report back to the EDC. Barker says this system allows the EDC to assess the overall health of industry sectors and recognize changing trends. The process also helps the commission become aware of expansion opportunities, helping to facilitate financial or workforce training assistance when possible, he says.

Also key to the region’s success is the EDC’s annual Career Awareness Tours, in which companies open their doors to local high school students, teachers, counselors and workforce development partners to make them aware of some of the careers available in Winchester-Frederick County and the education and skills needed to obtain them.

“The tours have been a huge success,” Barker says. More than 600 people participated in 2012.

Initiatives like these have helped keep local residents working in the region instead of commuting to the Washington, D.C., area. For those still driving to the Washington job market, the EDC offers a “Stop Your Commute” website, which provides links to local employer websites plus a worksheet to calculate the actual cost of commuting.

Also included are testimonials from former commuters who have found local jobs. In hers, Stacey Steele, accounts receivable administrator at SpecialMade Goods & Services Inc., says she was putting 35,000 miles on her car each year, changing the oil every six weeks, getting new tires every 18 months and spending over $300 a month on gasoline. “My commute was costing much more than I had ever thought — both financially and mentally — and I only wish I had made the change sooner,” her testimonial says.

Winchester area at a glance

Population (2010)
Change since 2000
Unemployment rate (July)
Adults with bachelor’s degree
Average weekly wage
Median family income
104,508 26% 5.20% 25.5% $794 $70,602


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