That big hole coming to the heart of Belleville may have just been given CPR, as Belleville and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital leaders put aside their differences to plan for the future of the hospital’s current home.
Mayor Mark Eckert and Peg Sebastian, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, have begun discussing the Belleville site and hope to have monthly meetings going forward. Construction is well underway on St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s $253 million replacement facility off Interstate 64 in O’Fallon, which left residents and city leaders wondering what would remain in Belleville after the move.
“We have had some good conversation,” Eckert said Tuesday. “I think it has been meaningful.”
Sebastian said St. Elizabeth’s is committed to keeping the three medical office buildings adjacent to the existing Belleville hospital. “At a minimum, we would have at least 200 staff on campus for the forthcoming years after St. Elizabeth’s were to relocate,” she said. “We know we want to be able to have essential services.”
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These services, Sebastian said, may include a walk-in clinic, labs and x-rays. She said about 75 to 80 percent of healthcare nowadays is delivered as ambulatory care in an outpatient setting.
The state health board’s approval of the project included a condition: St. Elizabeth’s is required to keep about 200 employees in Belleville for at least two years.
“This is all good news,” Eckert said. “As communication had deteriorated between myself and previous administrators, there was a point there was an indication made that nothing would be left. This is very positive that there is an interest and sincerity that they want to keep some services present and that’s what we were hoping for.”
The situation is what it is. We are not reflecting a lot on... how we’ve gotten to this point. The conversations have been about how we go forward from here. I feel obligated as the mayor...that we need to move forward now
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert
Sebastian took over as CEO in mid-January. Prior to her arrival, the city and St. Elizabeth’s had a contentious relationship, in part due to the city filing a lawsuit against the hospital seeking to halt construction of the replacement hospital and overturn the state board’s decision allowing the move. However, that lawsuit was dismissed in January.
“The situation is what it is. We are not reflecting a lot on... how we’ve gotten to this point,” Eckert said. “The conversations have been about how we go forward from here. I feel obligated as the mayor...that we need to move forward now.”
Sebastian said she believes they can work together to come up with a plan to benefit the entire community.
“I appreciate the perspective on the past that he has shared and am proud of the progress we are making to bridge differences and strengthen cooperation,” she said.
Both Sebastian and Eckert are optimistic the hospital’s current location can be redeveloped.
“Belleville is at a time that development is occurring in a lot of different parts of Belleville. I don’t think we should give up on the redevelopment of this particular acreage, because I think it’s got great possibilities,” Eckert said. “Our downtown certainly in the last couple of years has strengthened greatly.”
Despite the city’s inability to find a tenant for the Meredith Home, which the city purchased in 2010, Eckert said, he’s “very optimistic that there’s a lot of possibilities” for the future of the Belleville campus.
Sebastian said she has done this type of work before. As the president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Highland since 2009, Sebastian oversaw the facility’s capital construction project to relocate, build and open the $63 million replacement hospital and medical office building.
“I’ve always prided myself on relationships...to be able to bring the right people in to evaluate what’s the best re-purpose and also to engage the community,” she said. “My commitment to the community — I listen, I learn, then I react — make sure I do what’s in the best interest.”
The former St. Joseph’s Hospital in Highland was demolished, and the land is now owned by neighboring St. Paul Catholic Church and has been transformed into green space.
With the success of the low-income senior housing at the Cottages at Cathedral, Eckert wondered if more senior housing would be an option with the city’s aging population.
“These are all things we can talk about as we move forward, what the possibilities are,” Eckert said. “I am very optimistic. I’ve very thankful that they sent us someone like Peggy, who’s personality has been such that she feels comfortable and has a history of reaching out and partnering. I have no doubt we are going to be able to work together and resolve some of the challenges that face both the city and St. Elizabeth’s.”
St. Elizabeth’s is creating a Belleville Health Campus Repurposing Task Force to further engage members of the community. Eckert provided several suggestions of who should join the task force, including Ward 5 aldermen Philip Silsby and Ed Dintelman. Both aldermen understand their constituents’ concerns for the area around the existing hospital.
The exact number of task force members has not yet been determined, according to Sebastian. She expects the task force to have its first meeting in early summer.
Sebastian also plans to engage the community in small groups starting in early May called “Sunrise Breakfast with the CEO. I invite community members...to come and learn about the current St. Elizabeth’s and about future plans,” she said. “So I get input from those forums.”
She also said she receives input from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Board of Directors and the hospital foundation’s board of directors.
“I have a very accessible style,” she said. “I’m also available for people to share input as well.”
Sebastian now sits on the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors.
“She has already proven that she’s sincere about being present, being accessible, and to be a part of the community,” Eckert said.
I have a very accessible style. I’m also available for people to share input as well.
Peg Sebastian, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital
St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and the city of Belleville released a joint statement on Tuesday, which read in part: “There is a shared goal for the city and the hospital to find creative solutions for the area that will be good for the surrounding neighborhoods and the growing downtown business district. Both discussed excitement about the possibilities of enhancing the area adjacent to Belleville’s vibrant Main Street. At the same time, St. Elizabeth’s wants to ensure the Belleville campus provides easily accessible health care services.”
Eckert said St. Elizabeth’s isn’t “100-percent sure about what kind of programs or services” there will be on the Belleville campus once the hospital relocates.
“The best thing we have going so far in these early stages is an open dialogue and a willingness to sit and listen and talk about the importance of some continued services if possible... and also about re-purposing this property to the best of its ability to strengthen our downtown and our city and not to cause a detriment,” he said.
Sebastian said she’s not from Belleville and has a lot to learn about the area. She’s in the process of relocating to O’Fallon.
Eckert said he appreciates how receptive Sebastian has been to hearing the city’s perspective and the concerns of other hospital neighbors including St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville.
“There’s a lot of people impacted,” he said.
Eckert is also a neighbor of the hospital, as he lives close enough to see the lights from helicopters landing at the hospital through his living room windows. “I’ve grown up in this neighborhood,” Eckert said.
He was also born at the hospital and worked for an ambulance service for 15 years. His father also worked there.
“I have deep roots at St. Elizabeth’s,” Eckert said.
The new hospital is expected to be completed in the fall of 2017.