Our Lady of Victory Hospital quietly remade into thriving part of community - The Buffalo News
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Our Lady of Victory Hospital quietly remade into thriving part of community

As Western New Yorkers await a decision by Kaleida Health on the future of the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, the region’s other big health care system is filling the last open space in its reuse of a historic Southtowns hospital.

Almost 14 years after the former Our Lady of Victory Hospital closed and merged with Mercy Hospital in 1999, the 350,000-square-foot campus is a thriving mixture of services for seniors, the community, the hospital system and even third parties such as other businesses or government agencies.

It’s a successful reuse example, based on serving traditional clients and branching into completely different businesses.

Now known as OLV Senior Neighborhood, the 10-year, $46.8 million project created low-income senior apartments, a nursing home, an elaborate senior citizens outpatient center, storage space, and a sophisticated computer data center. More than 235 jobs were created.

Today, the 74 apartments are full, with 50 more people on a waiting list. The modern nursing facility generates far more revenue per bed than in the past. And the elder-care program – which enables seniors to live at home but still get help – is full at 146 participants, with officials considering a second program in Cheektowaga.

And the data center has proven to be an innovative reuse of the extra physical space and enormous power, infrastructure and backup capabilities built into the complex because it was a hospital. Catholic Health is seeking other users to share the space, which can accommodate far more computer power than the hospital system needs for itself.

As a result, officials were able to fulfill a promise to the community that a key facility in the local fabric would not sit empty and decay.

“The impact of a vacant facility of that size would be felt for decades in that community,” said Catholic Health spokesman Chuck Hayes. “Just as important was a commitment to honor the legacy of both Father Nelson Baker and the hundreds of health care workers and benefactors who worked so hard to build and run OLV Hospital.”

Challenges elsewhere

Catholic Health’s success with reusing OLV comes as Kaleida now faces a similar but bigger challenge with the giant Gates Circle facility, which was closed in March 2012 and consolidated into Buffalo General Medical Center’s Gates Vascular Institute, at the recommendation of the state’s Berger Commission. Kaleida will face the same issue again after Children’s Hospital moves to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus from its longtime Bryant Street home.

And McGuire Development Co. is converting the former Sheehan Memorial Hospital into the Compass East mixed-use office facility.

Like Catholic Health, Kaleida wants Millard Fillmore Gates to be put to good use, and not left languishing. Its first effort to find someone to redevelop it fell apart over the summer when a veterinary school could not be found to take the site. So Kaleida pulled the plug and reissued a request for proposals to 59 firms in July.

Only three submitted proposals. The hospital system’s real estate and financial staff have been reviewing the responses.

“We want to make sure they’re viable proposals, so that’s why we want to interview them and go through their presentations closely,” said Kaleida spokesman Michael Hughes, adding that officials want to complete a sale by the end of the year.

Catholic Health officials acknowledge that the five-building OLV campus is far smaller than the 882,000-square-foot Gates complex, with its 13 buildings. But they say their achievement shows a reuse can work. “There are options available. You have to be open to different ideas,” said David J. Vitka, vice president of facility planning.

A plan evolved

Established in 1919 by Father Baker and the Sisters of St. Joseph, Our Lady of Victory Hospital served the Southtowns for more than 80 years, expanding to include four more buildings and a nursing school.

But in December 1999, Catholic Health merged the inpatient emergency and surgical services with Mercy Hospital, less than two miles away. The OLV facility continued providing community health services until 2004. But Catholic Health officials were already planning for the future, and assigned Vice President Aimee Gomlak to find and validate a community need, and then find a way to pay for it.

The general solution was clear: the area already had a big senior population, and the baby-boomer generation was on the cusp of adding significantly to it.

So the first step was the conversion of the St. Luke’s Building and the Victory Building – both historic facilities on Ridge Road – into the Victory Ridge Apartments, a complex of 74 low- and moderate-income apartments for seniors. Funded with $7.4 million in low-income tax credit financing through the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the $9.9 million apartments opened in 2006.

Two years later, the second concept opened, with the Mercy Nursing Facility at OLV. Catholic Health transferred 74 “beds” or licenses from the nursing facility at Mercy Hospital to OLV, along with 10 beds that came from the Berger Commission-recommended closing of the Nazareth Home near Kleinhans Circle. That freed up an entire floor at Mercy for medical care.

The resulting new 84-bed operation uses a much different model than the traditional and more clinical setting in a hospital. Known as a Green House Project model, Vitka said the goal is to “elevate seniors’ freedom and not take away their control,” by enabling them to still feel independent.

Catholic Health modified the facility by creating four “households” – one on each floor. Each household has 21 private rooms, as well as a collective living room with a television and fireplace, a dining room and four “country kitchens” for serving and eating meals, or for basic cooking if residents want. A commercial kitchen downstairs prepares the meals and brings the entrees upstairs. “No more tray lines,” Vitka said. “Those are a thing of the past.”

There’s a commercial laundry downstairs, but each household has its own machines, too. The households also have spa bathing areas. Seniors can control their own heating, air conditioning and lighting, and the rooms have “Dutch doors” so the top half can be open for staff to check in, while the bottom half can be closed.

The new model has been successful financially. The percentage of residents who pay their own way soared from 1 percent at Mercy to 35 percent at OLV, while the daily room rate jumped from $180 to $325.

Simultaneously, Catholic Health instituted its first Program of All-Inclusive Care for Elders (PACE), which it calls LIFE or Living Independently for Elders. Managed by the company’s home-care division, Vitka termed it a “nursing home without walls” that allows participating seniors to get medical care and socialization without giving up their home. Medical, social work and transportation staff meet once a month to discuss each senior’s needs.

“You age in place wherever you call home and we bring you here as many times as you need for clinical care and the adult day-care center,” Vitka said.

Catholic Health also invested $1.95 million to create what it calls the Main Street area in 18,000 square feet on the building’s first floor – with a chapel, a museum about Baker, a cinema, civic space, retail operations, medical offices and OLV Laboratory Services. Outside, officials used a $681,000 state Department of Transportation grant to put in the Father Baker Gaslight Park and green space, along with a walking trail to the Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Officials also used space to store emergency items such as cots, mats and water in case of a crisis. Clinical and administrative records from throughout the Catholic Health network will also be kept there. And the company stores brochures, marketing materials and other corporate promotional items, dispersing them as needed.

Home for a data center

There was still extra space. That’s where its role as a former hospital – with its critical need for significant power and water, as well as backup systems to ensure staff could always maintain care for patients – coincided with Catholic Health’s technology demands.

With new efforts to go paperless, Catholic Health was running out of room in its existing data center. Officials looked around for a new site where they could guarantee the security, privacy, reliability and accessibility of the computers and data.

They found 25,000 square feet on the first and second floors at OLV, which has backup heating and cooling systems, backup power, duplicate technology and fiber-optic networks from four providers, security guards and facility engineers, and a massive 12-inch-diameter water main pipe. And as a former hospital, the building already has priority for having power restored in case of an outage.

“All the things you need to keep people alive are the same things you need to support a data center,” said Peter Capelli, the system’s vice president of information technology network and infrastructure. “We were able to leverage this and spread the cost out with limited extra burden to the whole facility.”

About $20 million later, the new Victory Technology Center is one of the most sophisticated such facilities in the area, officials say. Besides the capability to support Catholic Health, the facility is tied in directly to downtown technology hubs for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, including at 350 and 240 Main St. and at 241 Scott St.

And since Catholic Health is using just 10 percent of the facility’s space, officials are marketing its capabilities to other unrelated users. Already, a health care technology company and two government agencies are sharing additional space, and discussions are ongoing with some locally based international corporations.

“There’s no other data center like it in this area,” said Michael A. DiGiore, director of the data facility.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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