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By Jodi Schwan
FARGO – At $494 million, Sanford’s new 11-story Fargo Medical Center is the health system’s largest single construction project.
It’s also the largest private construction project in North Dakota history.
And it was the second-largest health care project in the nation as it was being built.
“I think the magnitude speaks for itself, but if you think about what it means for the Fargo region … this puts them with a piece of momentum to carry them to more of a regional center,” said Sanford’s Nate White, who will become the leader of the Fargo region in August.
“Fargo is a fantastic market and community, and I think the state of North Dakota in its entirety has really embraced Sanford.”
Before Meritcare merged with Sanford in 2009, the North Dakota health system already had owned almost 140 acres near the junction of interstates 29 and 94 for a decade.
The main hospital campus on 12 acres was largely landlocked downtown, and the community’s growth projections showed more medical services would be needed.
Fifty-eight percent of patients come from outside the metro area, so the easy interstate access and visibility were appealing, said Paul Richard, who leads the Fargo system and began his career as a medical records clerk there in 1971.
“For a lot of reasons, it was the right spot to build a trauma center,” Richard said. “That was the vision then, and how fast you can execute the vision is another issue.”
The process accelerated in 2009 when Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft committed to build the hospital. A groundbreaking followed in 2012.
As construction began, North Dakota experienced the peak of its oil boom. The labor market tightened. Construction costs shot up. Sanford ended up manufacturing some components in other states to control the budget. All of the patient bathrooms, for instance, were built in Ohio and then delivered to Fargo.
“The budget was $500 million and it was a challenge,” White said. “We realized through value engineering we could stretch our dollar further if we got creative. I think it’s pretty remarkable when you look at that it’s 1 million square feet and that’s total construction.”
At $494 per square foot, the project achieved the seventh-lowest cost per square foot of the top 50 U.S. hospital construction projects. It’s also expected to be designated a level one trauma center – a distinction achieved through meeting patient volumes, providing service for every subspecialty related to trauma and establishing credible research with respect to trauma.
“There’s very few reasons why people should have to leave Fargo-Moorhead for health care,” Richard said. “When you want to accomplish that as a goal, you have to have the house in which to accomplish that. And that is this house.”
Several Sioux Falls companies played roles in the Fargo Medical Center.
Gage Brothers Concrete Products started working on the project in 2012. It became the company’s largest contract ever, requiring the second-largest amount of pre-cast concrete – equivalent to 6.5 football fields.
“At its peak, as much as half our staff was … working on it in the plant and another 20 people were on the site erecting it for us,” said Joe Bunkers, vice president of pre-construction.
“It went fantastic and really turned out beautifully. It was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever worked on.”
Gage Brothers worked with Sanford through multiple mock-ups, including a 1,500-square-foot miniature version of the hospital, to select a brownstone color for the building. The company also created arched entries and intricate flooring.
“It’s truly remarkable what we were able to accomplish in one piece of concrete,” Bunkers said. “We’ve done intricate work, but it’s definitely some of the most complicated pieces we’ve done.”
Part of the building’s aesthetics also fell to Ivy Oland Dandar, owner of Oland Arts Consulting, who has spent four years overseeing about 1,700 art locations in the hospital.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “For me, it’s the largest project I’ll ever work on in terms of square feet.”
A call for artwork drew interest from 200 artists and resulted in 1,100 reproduction art prints, 250 original pieces and a couple hundred reproduced pieces used as wall coverings.
“It was big. There were a lot of pieces to manage,” Oland Dandar said. “There are several from Sioux Falls, a woman from Yankton and a number from the Fargo-Moorhead area and further into North Dakota and Minnesota.”
Work from a 12-year-old photographer, inspired by his sister’s hospital stay, hangs next to work from a retired physician. The pieces were selected by a committee that didn’t know the artists’ stories but resulted in a diverse collection.
“Sanford invested in the arts community, and it will certainly make the building more beautiful, but ultimately it’s about providing a building where you recover more quickly,” Oland Dandar said. “It’s an investment in health. That’s the core purpose for doing this.”
Building a hospital from the ground up allowed Sanford to integrate features to optimize patient and employee experiences, Richard said.
“We know that light, color, sound, is very important,” he said. “Sound from the standpoint of quiet. So we’ve really focused on how can we deliver a different patient experience here than we’ve traditionally done.”
Every patient room has a window with a view, and many rooms include sleeper sofas so families can stay together. Natural light comes in throughout the building.
Several departments and services moving to the new medical center from the downtown campus include the emergency department, Family Birth Center, Children’s Hospital and several types of surgeries.
There also are three restaurants, a pharmacy and a chapel.
“It’s all important,” Richard said. “It’s about the overall experience and getting away from the sterile, clinical look I think hospitals typically have been.”
Richard retires in early August. White is moving to Fargo and calls leading a brand-new hospital a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
He’s bullish on growth prospects in the region, too. When Sanford merged with Meritcare eight years ago, there were 370 physicians in the Fargo market. That has grown to 550.
“And it’s been aided by the new medical center, knowing they’re going to get to work there,” White said.
“A lot of it is increased volume, but a lot of them are new service lines. Every time we’ve added a service line, we’ve projected how many patients we think we’ll see, and we’ve far exceeded it every time.”
Sanford isn’t done building in North Dakota either, he said. When the hospital sees its first patient July 25, there will be 284 beds. The building can accommodate an additional 96 beds. It opens with 27 operating and procedure rooms with unfinished space for 14 more in the future.
There’s plenty of land left for building, too.
“You’ll see within the new few years additional medical office buildings and plans for another tower,” White said. “This is our 50-year future at the new campus.”
At $494 million, Sanford’s new Fargo Medical Center is the health system’s largest single construction project.