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Long-awaited Tradition hospital to boost St. Lucie County biotech hub
By Cynthia Washam
Originally published 06:53 p.m., March 14, 2012 Updated 09:12 p.m., March 14, 2012
PORT ST. LUCIE — The vision of a biotechnology hub bringing jobs and prestige to the city grew brighter Wednesday as Martin Health System broke ground on a hospital that will work closely with its biotech industry neighbors.
“This hospital will be one of the most significant milestones we’ll witness,” St. Lucie County Property Appraiser and former Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt told some 300 gathered Wednesday at the site for a ceremony. “This is the birth of a knowledge-based economy in our community.”
That budding economy is based in the Tradition Center for Innovation, a developing stretch of the Tradition community west of Interstate 95. The center’s first venture came in 2008 with the opening of California-based Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies. Neighboring Oregon Health and Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute officially opened its own $47 million, 100,000-square-foot facility last month. Martin Health System’s Tradition Medical Center is expected to open early in 2014 and Mann Research plans to open that same year.
The Tradition location is ideally suited for Martin to host clinical trials for treatments produced by its biotech neighbors.
“Tradition will allow access to clinical trials not available anywhere else on the Treasure Coast,” Martin ob/gyn specialist Dr. Peter Dayton said at the groundbreaking.
Ironically, Martin Health System’s dream of a St. Lucie hospital began long before anyone envisioned the region as a biotech haven. The Stuart-based, nonprofit health system first applied for state approval to build a hospital in western Port St. Lucie in 1998. The booming city had no hospital west of U.S. 1. Five years before the first application, Martin Health System had bought property along St. Lucie West Boulevard, between Peacock and California boulevards. The health system built an ambulatory-care and diagnostic center on the site, and set aside 16 acres for the anticipated hospital.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration turned down the hospital request in 1998, and repeatedly for nearly 10 more years. AHCA claimed the area’s population wasn’t enough to justify a hospital. For Martin, the denials were a blessing in disguise
because midway through the process, a hidden gem revealed itself several miles west of the original site.
“As Tradition started to develop,” said Martin spokesman Scott Samples, “it looked like an ideal place to include a hospital.”
Martin bought a 20-acre site adjacent to Torrey Pines and VGTI, and shifted its hospital applications to the new site.
Residents of the booming west end of the city supported Martin in their lengthy plea. More than 10,000 wrote letters and email messages in 2006 supporting the Tradition Medical Center. In 2007, Martin won approval for the hospital, but faced a three-year delay when competing HCA mounted a legal challenge that failed. For-profit HCA owns Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute in Fort Pierce and St. Lucie Medical Center in Port St. Lucie.
“Port St. Lucie is a city of more than 170,000 people, with the majority living west of the North Fork (of the St. Lucie River),” Martin President and CEO Mark Robitaille told the groundbreaking attendees. “This hospital provides much-needed access.”
He’s not dissuaded by the housing bust in recent years. Much of his optimism comes from the free-standing emergency department Martin opened on St. Lucie West Boulevard in 2009. Hospital officials predicted patient volume of about 15,000 per year. They’ve had 28,000 per year.
“We’ve exceeded our expectations,” Samples said. “If that’s an indication of need, there hasn’t been a slowdown.”
Real-estate agent Brian Sharkey is among the St. Lucie West residents eager to have a hospital within an easy drive. He and wife Tracy traveled to Jupiter Medical Center when their last child was born.
“Living out west, it’s difficult to travel east, particularly during the busy part of the day,” Sharkey said. “It’s going to be very exciting to have a hospital three to four minutes away.”
Services at the Tradition hospital will include intensive care, labor and delivery, and neonatal intensive care. Martin officials predict the project will cost more than $127 million. They expect the facility to employ more than 400.
To attract physicians to the western community, Martin Health System is joining Mann Research in building a physicians’ office building adjoining the hospital, which also is slated to open in 2014.
The hospital will open with 90 beds, yet hospital officials designed the five-story building to expand up to 300 beds.
“Once the growth begins again,” Samples said, “we can accommodate it.”
1998: Martin Memorial makes first application to state for hospital — in St. Lucie West — and is rejected.
1999: Martin Memorial again applies for approval in same location.
2002: Martin Memorial applies again.
2006: Martin Memorial buys land in Tradition and applies for that location instead.
June 2007: Initial certificate of need approved by state. HCA appeals about a month later. Case goes to administrative law judge.
July 2009: Judge rules for Martin Memorial.
December 2009: State grants “final” approval for new hospital. Late December 2009: HCA appeals to 1st District Court of Appeal. April and June 2010: Written briefs filed.
Oct. 2010: 1st District Court of Appeal oral arguments. A court ruling cleared the way for Martin Memorial Health Systems to begin building an 80-bed hospital in Tradition, ending a lengthy legal battle.
March 2012: Groundbreaking
Early 2014: Scheduled to open in Tradition
Compiled by staffers Marjorie Bril and Karen Bayha
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