ST. ALBANS CITY — People regularly get together to talk over coffee. But it’s less regular for that conversation to shift the future of the city.
Yet Jill Berry Bowen, the CEO of Northwestern Medical Center, said that’s exactly how the forthcoming development on the corner of Congress and Main — and its central partnership between NMC, the Community College of Vermont and the Vermont Technical College — began: as a conversation at the Catalyst Coffee Bar, right downtown.
“Talk about a community coming together,” Berry Bowen said, addressing dozens of community leaders gathered in the back of the café.
“This is just an amazing story.”
Berry Bowen and Joyce Judy, CCV’s president, said the story began with conversations in Messenger editor Emerson Lynn’s office.
Judy said Lynn “had been poking at me, [saying], ‘You’re in the wrong location in St. Albans.’”
CCV’s St. Albans office is currently located on South Main Street, near the St. Albans Town Educational Center.
Judy said, “I kept saying to him, ‘We’re not far away. We’re really in downtown.’
“He said, ‘But you’re not. You’re not in a part of downtown St. Albans.’
“And so now we are going to be. Right in the middle of downtown.”
The development planned for the corner of Congress and Main streets is a 25,000-square-foot building, directly across from City Hall.
Berry Bowen said NMC will occupy about 8,000 square feet on the building’s third floor.
She said about 4,000 of those square feet will go to community health coaching space.
The rest of NMC’s space will include a demonstration kitchen, where NMC personnel can teach community members practical healthy cooking, as well as a flexible space that may become community meeting rooms.
“And who knows, there might even be a climbing wall to get to the third floor,” Berry Bowen joked. “We’re not sure.”
Judy said, “We will bring a lot of people to [the] downtown.”
Judy said 434 students are currently enrolled in CCV St. Albans. She said CCV St. Albans also employs about 40 faculty and seven staff members.
“They will bring their cars,” Judy acknowledged.
She said CCV has worked with city officials to find parking solutions, including on-site parking and spaces in the city parking garage.
CCV provided statistics that said 42 percent of CCV St. Albans’ students this semester are new, and 60 percent of the St. Albans students overall are first-generation students, with an average age of 23.
Judy said many accumulate credits, then transfer to the University of Vermont or another state college. Some are high school students, building early college credits — Joyce said almost 300 high school students took CCV classes this past year.
But Judy said the average age of CCV students statewide is 28.
“We see a lot of adults who are stuck where they are,” she said. “And when I say ‘stuck,’ I don’t mean in a negative way, but they are looking to move forward.”
Judy said some are workers looking for a different job. Some are veterans, transferring from a military career to civilian life. Others — Judy gave the example of carpenters — may have been injured working, and are now looking for a different line of work.
“We see a huge diversity of students,” Judy said, “and we expect to continue that and grow that as we move downtown.”
CCV’s course offerings are equally diverse. Judy said the college launches a sequence of manufacturing courses this summer, which will be free for Franklin County students due to a federal Northern Border Regional Commission grant, and launches an accelerated early childhood education program this fall.
Judy said the new space will allow CCV to expand its course offerings, for example, in science — she said CCV St. Albans’ current space made constructing a chemistry lab cost prohibitive.
And science courses, she said, are the core of the allied health field, which was, itself, the core of Monday’s announcement.
Lisa Fox is the VTC nursing program’s site director for the northwest region, Franklin and Chittenden counties.
Fox said that in looking at the national and local nursing shortage, “it’s really important that we look at some of the barriers that keep students from being able to go to nursing school.”
She said the NMC-CCV partnership will “break down a lot of these barriers.”
Now nursing students can immediately establish relationships with NMC personnel, and in their community, while using the same equipment the hospital actually uses.
“These students will really get a feel for what they’re going to be using when they get a job,” Fox said.
She said, “That first year is when a lot of nursing students decide, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’” But Fox said this new partnership eliminates the central reason many students become doubtful: working in an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar equipment.
Fox said 29 nursing students take classes out of the CCV building. And she said that’s the maximum student body that space can fit.
Because that space has no lab, simulation or skill spaces, students travel to Williston or even Randolph two days a week. And because the space also limits class sizes, Fox said the program has “huge” wait lists, and that students often have to wait multiple years to get into the program.
Judy said 73 percent of VTC nursing grads began at CCV. Fox said her experience suggests that percentage should be much higher. CCV offers every pre-requisite course those nursing students need prior to enrollment in the VTC program.
Berry Bowen acknowledged NMC, too, struggles to recruit and retain nurses, like hospitals nationwide.
But she said this new partnership creates “our own pipeline of nurses,” allowing local students, traditional and non-, to learn here, live here and work here.
And Berry Bowen pointed out NMC doesn’t have a monopoly on nursing. The program will also benefit local providers of home health, long-term care, mental health and public health.
She described the downtown space as a chance to reimagine local health care.
“We think about the hospital up on the hill” — NMC sits atop the crest of Fairfield Street — “as being available for traditional care, for sick care, for incidents, and where we’re moving, in the future, is really getting care out into the community. And a hospital that’s been focused on sick care transitioning to a hospital that’s focused on welfare.”
Berry Bowen emphasized the lifestyle coaching that will take up about half of the new NMC floorspace, “bringing wellbeing into the community, versus why do you have to go the hospital for everything.
“Let’s bring it out into the community, let’s get into businesses, let’s bring it downtown and show how wellbeing, learning and growing together, is a beautiful match.”
Grant Butterfield said, “I think this project is one of the last pieces of the puzzle for Main Street.”
Butterfield, of Nedde Real Estate, is constructing the building. He said he hopes to break ground in the late summer, and complete the building by fall 2020.
That might seem a ways off, but Butterfield said it took even longer to get here: nearly 18 months meeting with City Manager Dominic Cloud every Thursday for 3-4 hours.
Cloud was not in attendance, but Mayor Tim Smith made sure he got due credit.
“It’s his vision that brought the hotel, the parking garage,” Smith said. “And I want to make sure we that we give him due recognition for his vision, his drive to make these come to fruition. Because, without Dom, St. Albans wouldn’t nearly be where it is today.”
Smith said Butterfield, too, “is probably one of the biggest advocates for St. Albans. And now he’s putting his talk to work. … Without this, it would have been difficult to pull off.”
Smith referenced a statistic that said 110,000 of Vermont’s 630,000 residents are senior citizens, and that that number will grow to 180,000 seniors in the next two decades — “so obviously the infrastructure that we’re going to need to perform health care is going to be crucial moving forward.”
Smith said state officials cut workforce development budgets, leaving workforce development under local control.
“We have to take that into our own hands,” Smith said. “We need to be more proactive on programs such as this.”
Smith, Butterfield and Berry Bowen also praised Liz Gamache, the city’s prior mayor, who, as Berry Bowen put it, “started this story in her role previously, and now has been a consultant for us in helping [bring] the parties together.”
Berry Bowen said Gamache’s facilitation and information was crucial in developing the proposal.
“As a long-time city resident, it’s an honor for me to see the transformation, to see the changes,” Smith said. “It gives me a lot of pride being from the community.”
He told the story of encountering a Bulgarian couple on Main Street. Smith said he asked how they wound up in St. Albans, Vt., from Bulgaria.
The couple told him they’d flown into Boston and driven to Montreal to visit friends. As they left, their friends told them, “Make sure you stop in St. Albans, Vermont.”
“I mean, that’s huge,” Smith said. “The word of mouth that we hear, and the impact of that, are huge for this community.”
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