Official: No plan in place if St. Joseph hospital leaves Warren

WARREN — There is no plan by Warren officials for the existing St. Joseph Warren Hospital on Eastland Avenue NE if plans to build a new Mercy Health hospital in the proposed expansion of the Eastwood Mall complex proceed, said the city’s safety service director.

And if the hospital system has a plan for the existing hospital, its leadership team hasn’t spelled it out to Enzo Cantalamessa, the safety service director, or the Tribune Chronicle.

An email and several phone messages left with the public relations director for Mercy Health were not returned. Questions regarding plans for the Eastland Avenue NE location after the new location is built were included in the email.

The Cafaro Company, which owns the land and the mall complex, is going through the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s process for developments that may affect wetlands. A public hearing was held Monday and public comments are being accepted. The company’s application states Mercy Health approached the Cafaro Company, saying it was interested in the “Enterprise Park” project area.

Cantalamessa stressed the project, which may also feature several other new structures, is not set in stone.

“At this point, it is a little premature to plan for that because there is no deal in place for the move. Mercy Health is being courted, but nothing has been done formally yet; there is just a conversation about annexation. There are talks across the spectrum. A lot of this is just in preliminary stages,” Cantalamessa said. “I talked to Mercy and their mission as a member of the community is to serve the citizens in Warren.”

But Howland Township Trustee Matthew Vansuch seemed resigned to the fact that the land is likely to be annexed from the township to Warren as a term of the project.

“We can spend lots of money creating ill-will by fighting it and losing anyway, or sit down at the table and work out an agreement with all parties,” Vansuch said. “Mercy Health made it clear it won’t harm Warren with the move and we will not stand in the way. It is in the best interest for all of us if Warren doesn’t lose income tax payments from one of its largest employers. We don’t need Warren collapsing. No one does.”

The hospital, though exempt from certain taxes because of its non-profit status, generated $1.055 million for the city in employee income tax collections in 2017, said Tom Gaffney, Warren’s tax administrator.

The project also could cost Warren revenue from public utilities, but it isn’t clear yet if it will. New utility lines would need to be built for the new development, but it isn’t yet clear which entity would supply the new utilities. But a part of the annexation process, initiated by the property owner and completed by Trumbull County commissioners, includes ensuring the new community is capable of providing services to the property being annexed. However, that does not require Warren’s utilities to be used.

Matt Martin, director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, which runs the Trumbull County Land Bank, said he is concerned about what will happen to the Eastland Avenue NE location — especially considering the state of disrepair of the former St. Joseph Riverside Hospital on Tod Avenue NW, which changed hands several times before being abandoned to the elements.

“Before we go moving on to the next project, I think consideration should be given to finding a creative way to remediate it. And, of course, we need to consider St. Joe’s on Eastland, and make sure that doesn’t become another abandoned building. These sites are all connected. I think viewing them as otherwise is disingenuous. It’s a matter of equity and making sure the entire community benefits,” Martin said.

Cantalamessa acknowledged community concerns, but said he doesn’t think the Eastland location will be left to rot.

“History has been a great teacher and we will never let happen on Eastland what happened on Tod. We’ve been down that road before. (Mercy Health) is aware of our concern and they gave no indication they won’t maintain some presence there,” Cantalamessa said. “I wasn’t around when Tod closed, but there should have been more planning after they left. We can start working on some safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen, but what those safeguards will be remains to be seen. They are still the property owners.”

The county land bank has the ability to acquire the property on Tod Avenue, but doesn’t have the means to tear it down, Martin said.

“We have some leads on some possible resources, but at the end of the day we will need a local match. That’s where we would look for partnerships in the public and private sectors to invest in this part of town, too,” Martin said.

The cost to demolish it was estimated at $1 million in 2012.

The language used in the Cafaro application seems to indicate Mercy Health fully intends to move forward with the move if the development proceeds.

“Initially, Mercy Health analyzed the possibility of expanding and renovating its existing St. Joseph Hospital, currently situated on Eastland Avenue SE in Warren, in lieu of joining in development of the project area,” according to the project application.

However, a study showed an expansion and renovation was “not feasible” because of cost, construction time of up to five years, inconveniences to patients, visitors and staff and “operating inefficiencies,” according to the application.

A consulting firm searched for several locations for Mercy Health and found the Enterprise Park location was the most ideal, the application states.

“Furthermore, from a purely market-driven perspective, St. Joseph recognized clearly that it would still be left with an older and unattractive facility that was situated at an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ location on a two-lane residential street, and in a geographic area marked by deteriorating economic conditions. Finally, the staff of Mercy Health concluded that a new and modern hospital edifice located in a campus setting in a substantially better geographic area with access to the essential amenities offered at the Eastwood Complex would enable them to more effectively compete over the long term with their primary competition in the Youngstown-Warren (area),” the application states.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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