The island’s largest medical center may be bigger than demand

A medical center planned for Madison Avenue may be a community health-care remedy that comes a few years too late.

At 27,700 square feet, the planned Island Medical Center would be the largest medical facility on Bainbridge. It’s an ambitious project aimed at meeting the service needs and desires of a growing island population that would prefer not to ride a ferry or cross a bridge to see doctors.

But some health-care professionals say the project, which was approved by the city last month and is under development by island-based MRJ Constructors, may have trouble filling its spacious new offices.

“They have a gigantic medical facility planned without a clear cut picture of who will occupy the facility,” said Bainbridge pediatrician Frederick Walters. “There’s a lot of questions about whether it’s needed, given the current health care players on the island.”

Walters was one of several doctors whose interest was piqued when the project was first announced three years ago. He and a handful of other doctors worked for the Virginia Mason Winslow clinic, currently the island’s largest medical facility, but hoped to break away and establish competing facilities elsewhere on the island.

But as the Island Medical Center project stalled in the city approval process, Walters and others moved forward with their break from Virginia Mason.

Walters joined fellow Virginia Mason doctor Linda Warren in establishing Bainbridge Pediatrics last year in a new business park on Sportsman Club Road. Bainbridge Pediatrics recently added a third doctor and now serves about 4,000 children a year. Shortly after Walters and Warren struck out on their own, two other Virginia Mason doctors switched their allegiance to the

Bremerton-based Doctors Clinic and helped establish a new 5,000-square-foot clinic in an existing building on Hildebrand Avenue. Nine doctors, including family physicians, a dermatologist and cardiologist, now service the clinic.

“We saw that there was a big need on the island, and that more people didn’t want to catch a ferry or drive a long way,” said physician Brian Wicks, president of The Doctors Clinic.

Island Medical Center was aimed at meeting these needs, but the complicated process of gaining the city’s approval for construction of a large medical facility in an area zoned for residential use took more time than developers had predicted.

“We thought it would take six months,” said architect Jim Morss, owner of island-based Morss Medical Architects and project lead for Island Medical Center. “Instead it took almost three years.”

Morss and MRJ Constructors had planned to build the medical center before adding a neighboring assisted-living facility on the 5.4-acre property. But low demand for the medical center forced the developers to put it on hold and build the 47,300-square-foot assisted-living building first.

Morss said Island Medical Center won’t break ground until they have a roster of potential tenants. He’s not sure how long that could take, but remains optimistic that the project will move forward.

While islanders may be well served with primary and pediatric care providers, Morss believes Island Medical Center may focus on specialists. He said there is high demand for cancer, heart and women’s health doctors.

Despite the desires of many islanders, the project likely will not include a birthing center or provide emergency medical services. Several medical professionals said the island’s population is too low for such facilities to survive financially.

The project may have been dealt another blow late last month when Bremerton-based Harrison Medical Center announced substantial progress in developing a 50,000-square-foot medical center in downtown Poulsbo. The project would likely focus on specialized care for cancer sufferers, and would draw patients from around the region.

Meanwhile, Virginia Mason plans to expand its existing Winslow Way facility, and The Doctors Clinic is aiming to add urgent care services in 2009.

As the Island Medical Center project stalls and other health care providers step in to fill service gaps, Morss believes his project will have one strong selling point the others don’t or won’t offer: an earth-friendly design.

With geothermal heating, rain catchments systems, a pervious parking lot and other sustainable design features, the building’s plan is aimed at earning the island’s first U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for a commercial structure.

“Any doctor wants the most pristine environment for their patients,” Morss said. “Having a LEED rating means this will be the best place for a medical practice.”

Morss also noted that the project’s proximity to the neighboring assisted-living facility could supply the medical center with a stable supply of 50 to 60 regular patients.

While no doctors have signed on, Morss said he’s heard “a lot of enthusiasm” for the project, especially from independent doctors in need of better facilities.

“We think this will be a terrific building,” Morss said. “You can’t predict how this will turn out or who’s going to fill it, but we plan to build as quickly as we can.”