By Joseph Bottini, Oneida County Historian

Introduction

“Doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do” is not for the faint of heart. To hold to an opinion of what you know is right, even when leadership is in disagreement, indicates an ingredient found only in a person of noble character. There are times in life when challenges come our way that require courage beyond the ordinary, even to the point of being in the minority opinion. This is such a time.

The willy-nilly attitude of “going along just to get along” is often the escape of a less-than  stalwart individual. Such is the ongoing concern for where to build a new combined hospital in Oneida County. The decision to combine Utica’s three hospitals into one “state-of-the-art” facility ought to be made with serious consultation with the medical community and others in positions of responsibility. 

It will take much money so the taxpayers ought to have a voice in this decision. The clearest avenue forward would be to have a referendum on the topic. This is not being done. Thus, over the past five years two sides have formed, as the realization occurred that there were two major location considerations – “where to build.” One location is in the Columbia-Lafayette (COLA) neighborhood in Utica. The other is the present location of St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital at Champlin Ave, New Hartford; just across the street from Utica College and the city boundary.

Original Hospital Plan of 1991

(Note: The following was gleaned from an Observer-Dispatch article by Shirley Williams of January 1991) 

“St. Luke’s-Memorial Hospital center Foundation has purchased 38 acres of land adjacent to the hospital campus that may be developed with the hospital’s present 26 acres into a health care-education campus.” 

The article went on with, “. . . Andrew E. Peterson said a planning firm will be hired to develop a master plan for use of the land, which could include a medical office building, nursing home, senior housing, a free-standing diagnostic and treatment facility, medical retail complex for home care supplies and pharmacy, with some space retained for future hospital expansion and parking. . . . Peterson said the health care-education complex would be feasible because the hospital is surrounded by . . . Utica College and the Utica Business Park.” 

The decision to build a medical healthcare-education complex was in vision for 28 years. What caused the change in thinking?

Common Sense thinking is Needed

It is not my intent to question anyone’s honesty or integrity. That is beyond my scope of authority and power. I respect your right to your opinion. 

In this essay, I propose to explain the advantages of establishing, not just a state-of-the-art hospital, but a state-of-the-art healthcare-education complex. To do so would require those amenities only found at the Champlin Ave location. Three examples: an adjacent college/university, ample room for expansion and the existence of other medical and social support facilities in the immediate area.

At this crucial juncture in the process, it is time all stakeholders come together in a spirit of respect for each other and a healthy respect for the importance of the issue. We used to teach children to: Stop – Look – Listen before they crossed the street. It is time we all: Stopped (the harsh rhetoric) – Looked (at the facts) – and listened (to each other) before we continue in the decision-making process. It is time to re-think the decisions presently before us.

It is imperative that each of us remember to control our emotions and not let anger or frustration diminish our civility. We must put aside our petty peeves and personal differences in the interest of “doing the right thing.” Disagreeing without being disagreeable is the mark of a mature individual seeking civil compromises. We must keep in mind that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the greater Oneida County community. Common Sense must prevail.

Learn from the past

History is a tool that can help us understand where we came from, where we are and thus better plan for the future. Let us look at a few past “one-ingredient” fixes in attempts at trying to restore the “vibrance” that once was the City of Utica. Although a beautiful new building would enhance Utica’s appearance, a huge hunk of concrete (parking garage) would nullify that enhancement.

In the early 1960s, a new route 5S/Oriskany Street was created. In its wake an historic park, Old Fort Schuyler Park, was displaced. Its monuments were hastily deposited in Bagg Commemorative Park, well out of the proper placement in regards to the inscriptions attached to those two-ton blocks of granite. (Writer’s Note: there is a county plan in place to rectify this grievous error.) 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Urban Renewal work destroyed one of Utica’s most iconic buildings, Old City Hall designed by nationally known architect Richard Upjohn, saving only the clock from the tower it once resided in on Genesee Street.

There are other examples, but the one that really puts the issue in focus is the bridge constructed in 1974 at Genesee Street over the railroad tracks. It obliterated Bagg Square, denigrated Bagg Commemorative Park, truncated the western entrance to Main Street denying access to the Sherwood L. Boehlert Center at Union Station, obscured the Federal Building and made the intersection of Genesee Street, Liberty Street and Oriskany Street a total nightmare of convoluted traffic patterns; while limiting the access to parking for the clients of businesses on lower Genesee Street, as well as limiting parking for the Federal Building.

This bridge was to fix the flow of traffic at the Bagg Square area and to facilitate the direct flow of traffic from North Utica and the Thruway right into downtown Utica – the major fix to revitalizing Utica’s business downtown. Another fix that failed.

Of course, as is the case with the downtown hospital issue, the motives were pure and sincere. However, they were purely faulty and sincerely wrong. One must defend those shortsighted leaders because at the time (early 1970s) the Bagg Square area was a throw-away neighborhood. With vision, effort and planning, it has made a comeback. An example of what ought to be done with the COLA neighborhood.   

The proposal that a hospital would lead to a revitalized downtown is a specious augment. If we look to the past for understanding, we will find that the General Hospital (City Hospital) on the corner of South and Mohawk streets did not revitalize the neighborhood. This I know because my first job after coming to Utica in 1958 was in that venerable building. 

St. Luke’s Hospital on Whitesboro Street did not enhance that neighborhood. The Homeopathic Hospital (Memorial Hospital) did not change its surroundings with any increased shops and restaurants as is the going response by MVHS for a downtown location. 

St. Elizabeth Hospital was a stand-alone building virtually in the country (at that time New Hartford) and other than the encroachment of homes and residential neighborhoods developing, it did and does not increase the commercial activity. 

It would do well to note that three of the four of the above-mentioned hospitals moved to a less -than urban setting.

There has been some comparison made to Albany and Syracuse where hospitals in the urban center are “thriving.” This is a ruse because those hospitals are existing in a maze of buildings and streets that produces anything but a calm setting. My wife was an oncology patient in Syracuse and I was a patient in Albany – both in the past six years. Each experience was less than comfortable or pleasant. 

St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse, another urban hospital, has recently built a medical office complex and an adjacent hospital in the rural of Fayetteville. We have occasion to visit there as my wife’s surgeon is located in this beautiful complex in a spacious non-congested area.

Mantra of Mohawk Valley Healthcare System (MVHS)

Everyone ought to be assured that all folks, those for the downtown site and those for the Champlin Ave site, want quality healthcare in our county. 

The most often “uttered” reason for the COLA location for the hospital has been, “We want quality healthcare for all the residents of Oneida County.” 

This noble, but weak, support for their opinion has been the go-to response for most of my questions posed as I was seeking to understand the merits of their position. My personal conclusion, based on much research and lucid meditation, has brought me to the opinion that there is no tangible healthcare benefit to the downtown location beyond any to be realized at the Champlin Ave location.

That smoke and mirrors response is to cloud one’s judgement from realizing what a discussion transference that “mantra” employs. There is no direct quality-healthcare benefit of a state-of-the-art hospital in the COLA area. One cannot argue against such a magnanimous goal for a new hospital. One can understand that the same quality healthcare purported to be realized downtown can be readily provided, and more so, by building the facility at the Champlin Ave site. 

The disingenuous mantra of MVHS thus becomes an empty argument for their reasoning (however elementary it may sound) for their choice of location. All other reasons for having the hospital built downtown have nothing to do with healthcare. They are based on a desire to rehab a neighborhood and provide parking for the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium, both laudable goals but each not worth of the hospital as a patron.

There is a confusing notion that the labor union members would be more apt to receive work if built downtown. I have not looked into this issue, but believe that a brick laid in Utica is about the same work as a brick laid in New Hartford. One labor union member told me that if the hospital is not built downtown, it won’t get state permission to be constructed, and they would lose the opportunity for employment. 

I believe this came from the false rumor that the money from the state was tied to a provision that it had to be built in the city. If this is so, building it across the street from Utica would certainly comply with any such requirement; if there is one. Or perhaps an annexation of that portion of New Hartford would be mandated as in the case when Rhoads Hospital was built in 1942.

Fair “Facts” Comparison

In order to obtain a good assessment as to which location is the best place to build this proposed state-of-the-art healthcare facility, prudence dictates a fair and open comparison be made.

There are basically five areas of concern: costs, including taxes, history/architecture destruction, red zone hazard, conflict with proposed “U” District/entertainment area, police facilities displacement.

If the hospital were to be built in the COLA district, there would be additional costs that would not be incurred at the Champlin site.

Evaluation and acquisition of properties, asbestos abatement and demolition fees, infrastructure updates, power plant construction, parking garage and medical office space construction and heliport construction are all costly steps needed in the downtown location that are not factors at Champlin Ave.  

All of the above are in place at Champlin Ave and the 64-acre site is shovel ready. 

The federal government strongly advises that a healthcare facility (hospital) not be constructed in a “Red Zone.” The COLA district is within a mile of a railroad track that has trains carrying hazardous material. The rule is that if there is a spill, all people have to be removed from the “zone.” What would they do with the patients from the hospital, if built downtown, and there was a hazardous-spill  train accident?

Every blade of grass and every scoop of dirt that has a connection to something historically significant is not eligible to stand in the way of progress. However, there are some buildings and locations that have more than a common connection to history that ought to be considered for preservation. Utica has lost too much of its historic past during “single-item” proposed fixes to the city’s viability that was considered “progress.”

The problem is who decides what is and what isn’t important enough to preserve? Reasonable leaders in conference with those knowledgeable of the community’s history could make a joint decision if civility and nobility reign supreme. Certainly, the birthplace of Utica is worthy of preservation consideration. At one time, Utica was world-renown for its magnificent and varied architecture, both in public buildings and personal places of residence. The list of many that have been lost is too long to incorporate in this space. 

May I name one? The site of the fort that provided a means of traveling across the Mohawk River and during the Revolutionary War sheltered the honorable General Herkimer ought to be at the top of the list. The location of the birth of the first commercial telegraph company in the world seems to warrant attention. The “Eighth Wonder of the World (1825) and the headquarters of American Automobile Association, the founding of the Associated Press, The American Express Company and the birthplace of the modern newspaper industry were all located in Utica and lost to thoughtless “progress.”

Another issue of conflict is as important as any, the police complex on Oriskany Street. With a new police vehicle-maintenance building, as yet not paid for, scheduled to be moved (and new one constructed) is a waste of taxpayer’s confidence in sound financial management. If the other two police buildings have to be destroyed, this would exacerbate the financial burden on local taxpayers. 

This step would also destroy an iconic 1928 building of some architectural significance. It could be renovated and updated with an addition to satisfy current needs. To meet the new regulations for this type of public facility would be extremely costly.

Issues such as emergency vehicle (ambulances) access, space constraints and the less-than bucolic setting of the downtown location are other periphery considerations of note. To squeeze a hospital in the middle of a recreation district is not the best option. One ought to not make something fit that is not a good fit; especially when another better option is available.

Further, the use of eminent domain is a “bully tactic” to frighten property owners, into making an agreement to sell their property, who think they will lose their property (through eminent domain) at a lower price anyway. 

According to my understanding, this government “power grab” is to be used with discretion and respect for the individual. Its intention was to give the government the “right” to a piece of land needed for completion of a crucial government use that could not be satisfied by any other means. In the case of the downtown hospital “grab” by MVHS, both tenets of the law would be ignored. 

The land is not needed to complete a “crucial government use.” 

There are still a number of medical professionals who question the combination of the three hospitals into one “state-of-the-art” unit. The second issue of being able to complete the project for the greater good, one might posit it could easily be achieved at the Champlin Ave site. 

Not one cogent (supportive) medical-purposed argument has emerged in MVHS’s hospital proposal. Where there is an alternative, and a better alternative at that, eminent domain is rendered void. 

The entity threatening eminent domain in this case is a private corporation and not the government. It would seem wrong to punish a private group of a few citizens (COLA property owners) to the benefit another private group of a few citizens (MVHS).

In this, and in many other civil laws, there is the underlying moral law, the law of God as recognized in the Declaration of Independence, that supersedes the laws of man. If all of the above is not so, the existence of a democratic republic known as The United States of America is a mirage born in the fertile minds of the Founding Fathers during a moment of madness.

Finally, the encumbrance for proving they meet the intent of eminent domain is upon MVHS. To my knowledge, they have not done so with clarity.

Questions

Who made the decision to locate downtown? On what data was the decision made? Why haven’t we been given one healthcare reason for the decision? Why haven’t we heard publicly from the medical community? Why was the one physician who did speak publicly since been forced to become silent? This mood of group-think and group-speak (or total silence) does not bode well for our ideal of a democracy within a republic? 

Why One Must Stand Up

This mood of fear to speak out denigrates the legacy of the brave men who stormed the beaches at Normandy and Iwo Jima, and those who survived the brutal Bataan Death March in the Philippines. One of my sergeants in the United States Army was a survivor of the Bataan Death march. I am a better person for having had him as my leader.  A friend of mine was wounded on Iwo Jima soon after watching the American flag raised in that battle’s victory.

He has spent the rest of his life contending with the residual from those wounds. 

My relationship with that marine friend from the Iwo Jima experience gave me a more appreciative attitude toward the glory of America and more fully understand the sacrifice that saved and perpetuated our liberty. No, we are not perfect, but still working toward it should be everyone’s goal. If the people are unfairly dictated to by a few in leadership, our attempt at “a more perfect union” takes a hit in the gut. Any time the electorate is ignored, someone must speak up and be counted. 

Taxpayer Alert

It is more than prudent and morally correct to put this issue up for referendum and let the people who are going to pay the cost of this project have an opportunity to vote on it.

The cost of a new police maintenance building (present one not yet paid for) would be another burden on the taxpayers of Utica. Add this to the cost of the whole project (beyond the state “donation” of $300,000,000) and this plan would be chaining local residents to a lifetime of increased taxes to pay for a lesser accommodation of healthcare than would be possible if constructed at the Champlin Ave. location. 

Is it wrong to believe the money from the sale of any present MVHS property would go to the MVHS coffers? This would provide a way out of debt for that corporation and put the taxpayers in debt for the next many years. Oh, one might counter that the people of Oneida county will get a parking garage for use when attending “Aud” events. Is this expensive parking privileges? Does it seem fair and equitable for all?

Challenge

To those in MVHS authority: As you brush your teeth, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are being nakedly honest in your assessment of the issue and your opinion of it; when and where a new hospital ought to be located. If you take off the blinders of personal considerations, the answer will astound you.

God gave each of us the power to do what is right, but he also gave us the privilege of making the choice of whether to do the right thing or let the happenstance of life dictate our direction.

Let all honorable men and women stand up and be heard. This is the only way to have our fragile society, predicated on liberty and justice, survive. Let us refute the sophomoric process by which too many ventures get decided. Just as one would not pick one’s teeth with a pitchfork, one ought not to leave the well-being of our way of life to the wind.

Epilogue

If the powers that be don’t re-think their decision based on the above logic, Oneida County will lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Instead of a state-of-the-art hospital-education complex, we will have to be satisfied with a stand-alone hospital in a small neighborhood within a red zone – contiguous with a recreation district. 

Men and women of noble character with a skill to think at a higher level than that version of day-to-day easy-fix solutions seem to be in short supply.

Learning from the past may be of value. The North-South Arterial had to be re-done due to small thinking and political considerations. The 5S corridor is being re-done because of a lack of foresight when it was constructed years ago. Many are contemplating what to do with the monstrous bridge at Bagg Square that has become a hinderance to the development of Utica’s birthplace neighborhood and the future Harbor Point development. Decisions made in haste for what is politically expedient tend to cause concern in succeeding years. 

It was a few brave souls who stood up for the historically significant “Union Station” that prevented this iconic structure from meeting the wrecking ball that was deemed to be its fate in 1974. This was an eleventh-hour reprieve from the easy-fix solution (destruction) to a centerpiece of pride for Utica. This decision was not made in haste, but with serious contemplative effort to find a possible answer to a dilemma that required high-quality leadership.

Once, Oneida County and Utica were in the forefront with men and women brave enough to stand up for what was a benefit for all citizens. Oneida County was referred to as America’s County. Utica was a city with a high-quality life because a number of residents became supreme benefactors concerned for all residents. We enjoy their parks and other amenities today, over one hundred years after their unselfish acts of charity graced their city. 

Sophomoric thinking always leads to less than the best results. Does the state’s “donation” of half the cost of the project give it the right to dictate the procedure? Is the blessing of having courageous and creative-thinking leaders a thing of the past?

Finally, the questions that beg to be asked are: “Why is this decision being made that will cheat Utica of its opportunity to be a place with far-reaching total medical healthcare? Why is Utica being cheated out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Who made this decision? What data was used in making this decision? Why has the 1991 plan for St. Luke’s expansion into a total healthcare complex been ignored?

Why does Utica have to lose again because of a lack of prudent, courageous action? Why?

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