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'Future of Health Care' breaks ground

Shovels are wielded in a ceremonial groundbreaking at Perham Lakeside Golf Course Nov. 3.1 / 2
The floor plan of the $35 million Perham Memorial Hospital.2 / 2

In the realm of rural health care, it's hard to imagine a more eventful day than November 3, 2009-from the tri-state area right down to East Otter Tail County.

A merger of MeritCare and Sanford Health, creating the largest nonprofit rural health system in the United States, was announced Monday. Sanford and MeritCare holdings span North and South Dakota and Minnesota.

Within hours of the Meritcare-Sanford announcement, several MeritCare officials hustled over to Perham, to participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking of what is being billed as the largest building project in the history of East Otter Tail County.

More than 100 gathered for a ceremonial groundbreaking, not at the building site, but at the Perham Lakeside Golf Course. The site was too muddy to accommodate the large crowd, so instead they gathered near the fairways for a staged, first turn of the shovel.

By Tuesday morning, Ottertail Aggregate was already moving earth to prepare the site for construction of the $35 million project. Thanks to a very competitive bidding environment, contractors hungry for work in a slow economy came in nearly $5 million below project estimates, noted Hofius.

Ten years in the making, the plan for the new hospital is the result of countless hours of preparation, said Perham Memorial Hospital and Home Chief Executive Chuck Hofius. The planning included tours of 15 different hospitals, in five states, added Hofius.

Numerous speakers participated in a program at the groundbreaking event, including State Sen. Dan Skogen, State House Rep. Mark Murdock, a representative from Congressman Collin Peterson's office, MeritCare officials and local officials.

"Progressive and aggressive" is how Skogen described Perham and East Otter Tail County. He commended civic leaders for their foresight in recognizing the importance of access to rural health care.

"True leadership takes courage, and good ideas take time," said Skogen, of the project, which has been on the hospital district board's strategic plan since 2001.

"When Perham wants to get something done-it gets done," added State House Rep. Mark Murdock in his message.

Perham physician Dr. Mark Paulson described Nov. 3 as a "commencement" as management and staff move forward following extensive work that led up to the groundbreaking.

"The medical staff is very excited about this project; and the relationship with Sanford Health," said Paulson.

The local fundraising campaign, which has collected more than $2.5 million toward the financing package, was commended by Hofius. He was thankful to the many who donated to the capital campaign; but made a specific reference to three very special donations.

--The George Walters family, who were among the first to contribute-giving $100,000. He is a resident in the PMHH long-term care facility.

--The Perham-area elementary students, who conducted a "million penny drive" last year. The students donated money from the penny collection to several charities of their choice-including $200 to the PMHH building project.

--KLN Enterprises and owner Kenny Nelson: The companies, which include Kenny's Candies, Tuffy's Pet Foods and Barrel O' Fun, contributed $500,000 to the project. Management and staff have pledged matching funds of another half million dollars.

"A great big hip-hip hooray," was the cheer from Trudy Swanson, who with Dennis Happel, led the local capital campaign.

The local $2.5 million-plus became an especially important component of the financing, when the economic downturn shut down or severely limited access to conventional financing. The PMHH financing package is still not completed. But with the local contributions, the commitment from Bremer Bank, federal loan guarantees, and credit backing from the new Sanford Health & MeritCare, the PMHH board was confident enough to move ahead with construction-even though the final form of the financing remains uncertain.

"Our predecessors are looking down on us right now and they are beaming with pride," said Dennis Happel. "How on earth can a project this big be accomplished in a town this small, in these tough economic times?"

November 3 was not only a "Perham day," stressed Happel, but a day for all of East Otter Tail County.

"There are other townships and cities involved, and we couldn't do this without them," said Happel.

The new hospital is about two years from serving its first patient.

"This is still a rough draft," said Happel. "There is still a lot of work to be done."