Robert Ehlert: Time can heal all wounds in St. Luke’s expansion fight

There was this community in the east end of a capital city with serious concerns about a hospital expansion that was sure to alter the way things were, the way some residents liked it and wanted it to stay.

A tussle developed over turf and master plans. Charges of “encroachment” by the big health care facility became the cry of some folks in the neighborhood. But that was weighed against the fact that this very community might be glad they lived within five minutes of a potentially life-saving health care asset that presently did not exist.

Though this scenario might sound familiar as St. Luke’s is pitching the details of its Downtown Master Plan to the community in order to get Boise City Council approval for a $400 million expansion — right down to push back from the East End — the scenario is actually about Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, Calif. After more than a decade of planning, debate and construction, finally a $170 million regional heart center opened in East Sacramento. I know of this because my wife was an HR specialist at the hospital and I an editor at the Sacramento Bee during those days.

Much like the East End area surrounding St. Luke’s, the tree-lined neighborhood around Mercy General had matured into a lovely, genteel and desirable community. The $15 million gift to jump-start the project was made in 2001, but the heart center wasn’t completed and opened — to rave reviews and great acclaim — until March 2014. What happened between 2001 and 2014 was at times a lengthy and feisty but ultimately productive discussion over community priorities that resulted in the 2007 Sacramento City Council approval — but not before the hospital, a division of Dignity Health Care in California, agreed to a host of mitigation measures. To get it done, the hospital had to demolish and rebuild a parochial elementary school at a new location, construct a hospital-owned apartment complex nearby to replace housing, and work with other agencies to handle increased traffic.

There were times when the controversy wasn’t pretty, as some East Sacramentans posted signs in their yards against the project. But the more people talked — and the more people beyond the neighborhood and the hospital advocates weighed in about the long-term and big-picture prospects of the project — the more progress was realized.

I was heartened by and impressed with the dialogue during a four-hour public workshop on the St. Luke’s expansion hosted by the Boise City Council on Tuesday. St. Luke’s representatives made presentations and council members asked questions before a packed audience. A representative of the East End neighborhood had a seat at the table.

Many, including me, had anticipated that the presentations and even the vote might have been taken by now. But the city, the hospital and the community have adopted a slower, more methodical schedule — correctly perceiving the magnitude of the estimated eight-year project and how it can serve the region for at least the next 30 years. The next workshop session is not scheduled until the May 19 City Council meeting. Decision time could be weeks, even months away.

Though the closure of a 300-foot section of Jefferson Street — which would end a traffic route used by East Enders — is one of the consequences of some major and much-needed clinical upgrades in the hospital’s preferred “North plan,” I am optimistic further discussions will decrease the polarity and net a larger consensus. This can’t be just a discussion about a road or an inflexible plan — and it hasn’t been so far. St. Luke’s has sketched out a number of mitigation ideas in response to community feedback.

In the end, though, this must be a debate about Boise’s future health care needs. The slower pace is providing time so the correct answers and course can be identified. But more people from the larger community need to participate. Boise’s aspiration to be a livable city must be based on what is best for the whole community in the long term.

While we’re on the subject of health , I wanted to make you aware of the Creating Healthy Communities Summit, scheduled for Boise on Monday and Tuesday. The goal is to create a road map to improve health in the Treasure Valley.

Host organizations include St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, the High Five Children’s Health Collaborative, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, COMPASS, Idaho Smart Growth, FitOne, the Idaho Transportation Department, Treasure Valley United Way, HEAL, ValleyRide Transit, the Central District Health Department, the Treasure Valley YMCA and Boise Parks and Recreation.

The schedule: 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday and 7 a.m to noon Tuesday at the Boise State University Student Union Building. The cost is $50, which includes two breakfasts, lunch and parking. Register online or call Amy Stahl, Boise Parks and Recreation, at 208-608-7611.