Children’s Mercy Hospital broke ground Thursday on a research tower that its leaders say will put it among the world’s elite pediatric hospitals.
Powered by $150 million in charitable donations, the tower will be the tallest building on Hospital Hill and the glass facade on its north side, visible from downtown Kansas City, will be a major style departure from the traditional red brick of the rest of the hospital.
“I think it sends a signal, a clear, intentional signal, that times have changed,” said Michael Artman, the chairman of the hospital’s Department of Pediatrics. “This is not your father’s children’s hospital. This is a new thing. This represents a bold new era in the evolution of Children’s Mercy.”
City officials approved plans for the tower project last month.
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A $75 million donation from the Sunderland Foundation will go entirely toward the estimated $200 million in construction costs, which will also be paid through bonds and future fundraising.
Bill Hall, the Hall Family Foundation’s president, said his organization’s $75 million donation is flexible. Some can be put toward construction, but hospital officials also plan to put some aside for endowments to pay researchers.
Hall said Children’s Mercy is already providing excellent patient care. But the new building is necessary to expand its Children’s Research Institute, established in 2015, to compete with facilities in Cincinnati, Boston and Philadelphia.
“Mercy has not been as strong on the research component,” Hall said. “The really elite children’s hospitals combine both research and clinical practices and it attracts a certain kind of physician-scientist: researchers. It puts the hospital in a different league… We saw this as an opportunity to perhaps accelerate Mercy into that elite category.”
Hall said the new facility should help Children’s Mercy compete for federal research funds and improve Kansas City’s economy, as well as patient care.
The $75 million was the same amount the Hall Family Foundation and Donald J. Hall promised to give almost five years ago for a new Children’s Mercy research building if Jackson County voters passed a half-cent sales tax to support medical research.
That vote failed, by an almost 70 percent margin.
But Randall O’Donnell, the president and CEO of Children’s Mercy, said there were no hard feelings.
“That was a different time, and at the time the voters were right: We weren’t ready,” O’Donnell said. “But now we’re ready and we’re not asking for a tax.”
O’Donnell called the charitable donations “transformational” and said the new research tower will put Children’s Mercy “on the precipice” of being the best children’s hospital in the world.
The nine-story tower is expected to be completed by 2020 and will increase the hospital’s research space from about 66,000 square feet to about 375,000. It will have the capacity to house up to 3,000 employees, but the hospital doesn’t plan to fill it right away. It will leave three floors as shells to support future expansion.
But the search is already on for some workers with rare skill sets.
Tom Curran, the executive director of the Children’s Research Institute, said he’s in talks with a researcher from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, with Stowers’ blessing.
“He’s a perfect match,” Curran said. “He’s already collaborating with our leukemia folks.”
Curran came from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2016 to lead Children’s Mercy’s quest to become a major research player. Since then, the hospital has participated in gene therapy trials for leukemia and joined the University of Kansas Medical Center and the Stowers Institute as partners in KU’s National Cancer Institute-designated cancer research center.
Curran said the research that will happen in the new tower will touch all types of conditions, from behavioral health issues like autism to cancer. Half of the space will be devoted to information technology labs to crunch the huge amounts of health outcomes data collected at Children’s Mercy and break new ground in creating individualized treatments.
“To be able to design that from scratch is a really wonderful opportunity,” Curran said.