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State board approves Silver Cross move - New Lenox building can begin

SPRINGFIELD—Silver Cross can begin building its New Lenox hospital after getting approval from state regulators Tuesday.

Hospital officials faced some tough questions from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, especially over the fact that Silver Cross is moving out of a primarily black area. But in the end, the board voted unanimously for the $398 million hospital while extracting some extra commitments from Silver Cross to take care of the neighborhood it leaves behind.

The room in a Springfield conference center erupted in applause after the board voted, reflecting the many people who came to support the hospital. And Silver Cross officials were all smiles after winning a campaign that publicly began just about a year ago.

"It's a relief," Silver Cross President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Pawlak said when it was over, noting that the hospital has been working on this project for three years.

Motives questioned
Silver Cross can begin building the 554,000-square-foot hospital in a matter of weeks, Pawlak said. The new hospital, which would open in late 2011 or early 2012, will be near the U.S. 6 interchange with Interstate 355.

The site is just outside the city limits of Joliet and 3.5 miles from the existing Joliet campus.

Board members at times seemed suspicious of Silver Cross' motives for selecting the location outside of Joliet and away from the low-income neighborhood where the hospital now is.

"How would you respond to someone who would look at this as an attempt to move from a location that's in an African-American neighborhood to one that's not?" asked David Carvalho. A nonvoting member of the board, Carvalho typically asks the most probing questions from applicants seeking approvals for their projects.

Silver Cross officials stumbled over answers to the point that board member Dr. James Burden said to Pawlak, "I'm intrigued by Mr. Carvalho's question. Did you answer it?"

In the end, however, Silver Cross officials made some of the same arguments they have been making for months and silenced board questions about why the hospital is being moved out of Joliet.

Ruth Colby, senior vice president of business development, repeated Silver Cross's case that the current facility is obsolete, and it would be more expensive to rebuild in Joliet rather than move to undeveloped land it already owns. A couple of board members asked why Silver Cross didn't find a site in Joliet, and Colby answered, "There weren't other sites that met our criteria."

Two cities, two sides
The city of Joliet opposed the move, and City Attorney Jeff Plyman said after the meeting that he was disappointed in the decision.

"This is not a good decision for the city of Joliet, and it's not a good decision for the East Side (of the city)," Plyman said.

New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann said he was "thrilled" by the board's decision.

"It's great for people throughout the region," Baldermann said, noting that the area will get an improved hospital. "As for New Lenox, it adds viability to the site at U.S. 6 and Cedar (Road). In spite of the tough economic times throughout the country, New Lenox continues to see a great deal of growth on the north end of town."

Few denied
Ultimately, the board appeared reluctant to refuse Silver Cross's bid to improve upon its existing operation.

"I think this board has been really supportive of replacement hospitals and major renovations," Acting Chairwoman Susana Lopatka said. "I can't think of one that we have denied."

Lopatka then called for a vote, and indeed Silver Cross was not denied. The vote for the replacement hospital was unanimous.

Conditions for move
However, board member Courtney Avery, the one black person on the board, did push for certain conditions that basically extended commitments that Silver Cross already had been making for months. Picking up on Silver Cross commitments to continue serving the East Side of Joliet and low-income residents in the area, Avery asked for and received Silver Cross pledges to:

  • Put both primary care and urgent care services on the Joliet campus after the hospital moves. Silver Cross also committed to seek a Federally Qualified Health Center such as what Will County currently operates about five miles away. Hospital officials and Will County have already been talking about a Federally Qualified Health Center on the Silver Cross site, but no commitments have been made.
  • Provide documentation and quarterly reports about the Silver Cross Healthy Community Commission, which was created as an advisory board to assist in the effort to find new uses for the Joliet campus and to help East Side residents find jobs in the construction and staffing of the new Silver Cross.
  • Provide 24-hour shuttle service if needed from the East Side neighborhood to the new hospital. Silver Cross already has worked out a general plan with Pace to add bus routes from the Joliet campus to the new hospital site, but details have not been worked out.

 

Pawlak said after the meeting that Silver Cross could readily comply with the extra conditions imposed by the board.

"A lot of what they're asking for are things that we're doing already," he said. "We think it will be simple to address."

The usually unruffled Pawlak also said he wasn't bothered by the board's inquiry into the motives of the Silver Cross plan.

"They're a board that asks a lot of questions. They're thorough," he said. "As they got more information and knew more about our intentions, they were more comfortable with us."

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