What a year for Altru Health System. Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the northern Red River Valley, the local hospital was in the midst of great change after kicking off a massive construction project.
The construction was planned after a crack and a sagging wall showed a structural failure in the main clinic. That happened in late 2016; by 2019, ground was broken for a new and modern $305 million structure. It was great news for the community.
Ahh, but it wasn’t that easy. The plans changed later in 2019, reducing the project to five stories and a reduction in overall cost to an estimated $250 million. In early 2020, the plan again was changed, calling for six stories. And then the coronavirus emerged, throwing the hospital – the entire region, really – into a state of flux. Ultimately, construction was halted last spring.
Layoffs came in June, when 167 employees lost their jobs, executive pay was reduced by 30% and staffing hours were rolled back. Hospital Board of Directors Chairman Lonnie Laffen then died suddenly of a heart attack in December.
It was a depressing time, and the metal frame that stood idle those months was the pandemic personified, a reminder of starts, stops, cuts, layoffs, depressing news and universal uncertainty as COVID-19 caused so much disruption. It reminds us of Robert Burns’ 1786 “To a Mouse”: The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew, and leave us nothing but grief and pain.
Then, late last month, a breakthrough. Altru announced it is resuming construction later this year, with completion expected sometime in 2024.
Now this, too, is the pandemic personified. Although the region is not yet safe from the threat of COVID-19, a few bright rays of hope are beginning to shine through the proverbial clouds.
Cheers today to Altru Health System and the resumption of its construction project, which will be so important to the city and region for decades to come. Not only will its modern facilities be better equipped to care for area residents, but its construction itself is good business for the community. This is a $250 million undertaking and its economic impact will reverberate throughout the region.
Mostly, though, the city needs a good-news story, and this certainly is one.
“We were not going to start the project until we had the operational and financial support that put us in the right place to do it,” Altru CEO Dave Molmen told the Herald shortly after the hospital announced a resumption of construction. “We had a positive year in 2020 thanks to a lot of amazing work by Altru staff who worked very hard and dedicated themselves and sacrificed a lot.
“We were,” he said, “determined to see that this happened.”
That’s good, and Grand Forks will be better because of that determination.