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Old Independence hospital reborn as Ennovation Center and school district offices, wellness site

Updated: 2014-02-25T04:33:48Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

Some Independence School District employees report to the district’s main offices at 5 a.m. on weekdays.

They’re not there to work.

They’re there to work out.

The district’s wellness center, which opens long before classes start, is located in the district’s headquarters, itself located the former Independence Regional Health Center, which closed in 2007. The wellness center, which opened in 2011 and is available to district teachers, employees and retirees, is part of the district’s efforts to represent itself as an attractive employer in the marketplace, said Dale Herl, district superintendent.

“We want to be the employer of choice,” Herl said.

The center is one reason the district recently received recogition as a healthy workplace from the Kansas City Business Journal, which honored a variety of companies and employers across the Kansas City area.

The award also symbolizes the revival of the northwest Independence landmark once known as Independence Regional.

When the hospital shut down in 2007, many northwest Independence residents vented to the Independence City Council that the area was losing its emotional and economic anchor. The hospital’s legacy reached back to 1909, when it was known as Independence Sanitarium.

But old hospitals, once closed, sometimes stay closed.

That’s one reason the tax-increment financing agreement that accompanied the construction and 2007 opening of the new Centerpoint Medical Center in southeastern Independence included $12 million for the redevelopment or demolition of Independence Regional and the Medical Center of Independence. Both were owned by HCA Midwest, which built Centerpoint.

The Medical Center of Independence is scheduled to be torn down soon. But Independence Regional has been reborn as the home of the Ennovation Center. The complex includes the center’s business incubator as well as the central offices of the Independence School District.

“Hospitals that have closed down are typically very hard to market,” said Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Economic Development Council, whose offices also are in the redeveloped hospital.

“They are buildings that have had very specific uses and, in many cases, restrictive deeds have been placed on them by their previous owners. They don’t want an old hospital to compete with the new hospital.”

In 2009 an Independence advisory committee recommended that $10 million of the $12 million TIF fund be set aside for a future business incubator at Independence Regional. Demolition of the older north tower began late that year. The school district, the city and the Independence Economic Development Council soon collaborated to develop the incubator.

The old hospital complex became an appropriate long-term choice for the Independence School District, Lesnak said.

In 2008, the district vacated a former school building near Independence Square after almost one-third of employees working there complained of symptoms such as tingling and numbness in extremities. District officials later moved their offices to a former car dealership on Noland Road.

Also in 2008, the district began administering several schools in northwest Independence and Sugar Creek that were annexed from Kansas City Public Schools.

“The district wanted something permanent,” said Lesnak.

“But the district also wanted to make a statement about its commitment to the northwest Independence area,” he said. A new headquarters in the redeveloped hospital was “a cornerstone piece of all that.”

As for the healthy workplace recognition, the district merited the attention for several reasons, Herl said.

•  The wellness center. Teachers, other employees and retirees, for a minimal monthly fee, can work out on their own or sign up for organized activities such as aerobics or spin classes. The 9,000-square-foot facility offers a full selection of exercise equipment along with locker rooms and showers.

•  An on-site health clinic: The clinic, which opened in 2012, is available to employees covered under the district’s health plan. It received 1,281 patients during the 2012-2013 school year, with an average of 183 patients per month.

•  Biometric screenings and health-risk assessments: These tools give employees specific information regarding their state of health.

“Those screenings represent a base-line of information for our employees,” Herl said.

The illnesses suffered at the former school building are not related to the current wellness emphasis, Herl said.

School districts across the country were challenged in 2004, under reauthorization of the national school lunch program, to consider wellness policies and goals to assist in reducing childhood obesity. Initiatives regarding student health have been written into district policy. All food available for purchase on school grounds and at school-sponsored activities during the instructional day, for instance, “should meet or exceed the district nutrition standards.”

District officials also considered health initiatives for employees.

About three years ago, Herl said, the district was looking at a possible 24 percent increase in its health insurance premiums.

“That represented hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “We wanted to reduce our exposure.”

The district’s insurer agreed to a rate cap, Herl said, as long as 90 percent of employees agreed to undergo a biometric screening that includes readings of blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood glucose.

Even though the screenings are voluntary, the district reached that level of participation. That, plus the health clinic — which the district believes to be the only school district clinic for staff members in the Midwest — brought down insurance costs.

“That saved us about $840,000,” Herl said.

There have been nonfinancial rewards as well. Three employees were alerted to possible breast cancer issues after undergoing mammograms scheduled for employees at Centerpoint. Herl believes all cases were detected in the early stages.

“So this had some immediate benefits,” he said.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs representing about 30 area start-ups are renting space at the Ennovation Center, enjoying access to high-end equipment that otherwise might have been out of their reach.

“The product we offer is a great work environment for entrepreneurs to grow,” said Lee Langerock, the center’s executive director.

“It’s already a robust environment for entrepreneurs to come in, grow and be connected.”

The former Medical Center of Independence, considered an eyesore for years, should be coming down soon.

Like Independence Regional Health Center, it was closed in 2007 when HCA Midwest opened Centerpoint Medical Center in southeastern Independence. The MCI property is at 17203 E. 23rd St., just east of Missouri 291.

Permits have been pulled for the building’s demolition, said John Carnes, an Independence lawyer who represents the property’s current mortgage-holder as well as Truman Manor LLC, an entity that years ago had wanted to develop a senior citizen residential center on the site.

The property has been fenced.

“Environmental abatement is going on as we speak,” Carnes said recently. Once asbestos removal is complete, demolition should follow, he said.

Truman Manor LLC had submitted plans to convert the almost 14 acres into a condominium project containing nearly 400 units. Residency was to have been restricted to those 55 and older, with amenities such as restaurants and shops.

The plan never went forward, however. Truman Manor, said Carnes, had hoped to see $6 million of tax-increment financing funds set aside for the condominium project, not the $2 million endorsed by an Independence advisory committee.

Last year the city received occasional complaints about weeds around the former hospital. The City Council, also last year, approved an ordinance setting aside about $1.5 million from Independence Power & Light’s capital budget to acquire the property.

While the transaction closing date had been scheduled for Dec. 1, that now has been extended to March 15, said City Manager Robert Heacock. One condition, Heacock said, is the demolition of the main hospital building.

That is pending because of environmental issues, he said.

Upon taking the property, the city will renovate a former medical office building east of the old hospital. That will be used by Power & Light employees.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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