The front of Petersburg Medical Center on a cloudy day.
Petersburg Medical Center’s current facilities are falling out of code, so the hospital board is pursuing a new hospital. (Photo by KFSK)

Petersburg’s Borough Assembly approved an appeal from the local hospital board on July 17th that will allow them to move forward with their plans to build a new hospital. 

One of the biggest projects in the history of Petersburg hit a bump in the road last month, when the community’s Planning and Zoning Commission threw out an application that would have prepared a plot of land for the facilities. By a vote of five-to-one, the assembly reversed Petersburg’s Planning Commission’s decision. However, the community remains divided on the project. 

Petersburg’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted against re-designating a stretch of muskeg on the north end of the community for three reasons. 

The first: Petersburg is in the middle of a housing crisis. The idea is that rezoning single and multi-family lots for the new hospital could take away opportunities to build badly-needed shelter. Assembly Member Dave Kensinger chairs the borough’s housing task force. At the regular assembly meeting on July 3rd, he said that if the borough lacks anything, it’s not developable land.

“There’s about 343 properties [in the Borough] that are currently platted,” said Kensinger. “All they are is lines on a map. The one thing that we do not lack in town is land. We have lots of land. We’re fortunate in that.”

The Commission’s second reason: Lack of public education on the project. And that’s tied to the third reason: lack of public input.

Phil Hofstetter is the CEO of Petersburg’s Medical Center, and he chafes at those. He said he’s been working on public engagement for at least the last five years.

The medical center published its plans on its website and in the local paper, and Hofstetter, himself, personally reported on the progress of the project at nearly every assembly meeting since the plan’s inception. He’s also hosted open houses and community cafes with the project’s architects.

“Really, the idea is like — if the board is looking at a new facility, the first thing we have to do is provide that input from the community,” said Hofstetter. “We are a community hospital.”

But a lot of community feedback departs from the reasons the Planning Commission gave for rejecting the application. Many of the hospital’s potential neighbors have gone public with their distress over the idea of living next to the commotion of construction, and then a busy hospital. 

Diane Marsh is one of them. She’s the mother-in-law of Borough Assembly Member Donna Marsh, who is the only member staunchly opposed to the project. The new hospital would be smack-dab against Diane’s property line. At the Community Planning meeting on June 13th, she said she’s worried about how the presence of the new hospital would disrupt her peace at home. 

“My living room windows — I don’t keep curtains on them,” said Marsh. “I don’t want people walking around my house, looking in my windows. The cars are going to be driving right by my house. Lights are going to be shining in my bedroom window. Maybe we need a new hospital, yes. But not right there.”

Other locals are worried about what they perceive to be a huge financial risk to the community. Like Harold Medalen, whose property line is also bordering the plot of land staked out for the hospital. 

“[If] we build this expensive facility, and it falls flat — that’s the choice of you few people up here,” Medalen told the assembly at its regular meeting on July 3rd. “I think it should go to the voters. Just because we’re gonna get free money from somewhere else to pay for this whole thing — free money can be just as badly invested as our own money.”

Hofstetter has repeatedly assured the assembly that the project would be funded by grants, and the community wouldn’t be left holding the bag if those fall through. The current estimate for the project is $85 million — $25 million shorter than the quote for renovating the current facilities. So far, PMC has secured $8 million in grant funding.

But Assembly Member Donna Marsh isn’t convinced. She’s concerned about the lifetime cost of staffing and maintaining the new facility, which would be more than 20,000 square feet bigger than the hospital Petersburg has now. 

“This is far beyond the scope of what Petersburg can handle,” said Marsh. “We don’t have funding to construct it. We’ve got some promises, we’ve got some ‘maybes’ — but we don’t have anything. And in five, ten years — this is going to be an aging facility.”

But there are still others in the community who believe in the project — even if their personal interests are at odds.

Lizzie Thompson’s property overlooks the area where the hospital is set to go up. She said feels a little conflicted — none of her neighbors want to see their view of the beautiful muskeg disappear. And they’ll miss having access to ski trails that cross into the woods. But for Thompson, having a functional hospital is more important than any inconvenience it could create.

“I’ve heard people say something to the effect of: ‘it’s just a first aid station,'” said Thompson. “My oncologist wanted me to do chemotherapy in Seattle — traveling down for every infusion. And I was able to do it here. I can’t imagine having to travel to Seattle for every infusion, under the best of circumstances. But during a pandemic, it would have been horrible. It’s way more than a first aid station.”

PMC’s current facilities are falling behind code. Hofstetter said if things stay the way they are, the hospital will have to start cutting services: starting with home health, mental health, and preventative care. 

But the Borough Assembly was convinced of PMC’s case for preparing the lot for construction, and the hospital plan will move forward — for now.