Cabarrus Health Alliance groundbreaking a sign of progress in Kannapolis

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 21, 2011

By Scott Jenkins
KANNAPOLIS — Within a year, a new Cabarrus Health Alliance facility will stand at the intersection of Dale Earnhardt Boulevard and Mooresville Road. That’s geography.
But much further into the future, speakers at a groundbreaking ceremony said Friday, the county’s public health headquarters will stand at the crossroads of cutting edge scientific research and health-related breakthroughs.
Or at least close enough to be a part of it all.
After years of false starts and disappointments, the city hosted a groundbreaking ceremony Friday morning for the planned $13.5 million, 61,000-square-foot Health Alliance headquarters.
“It’s a great day for public health, a great day for this community,” said Dr. Fred Pilkington, chief executive officer of the Health Alliance and director of public health for Cabarrus County.
“It’s something we’ve hoped for and dreamed of for several years,” he said, “and it’s finally here.”
The 3.6-acre site is not only close to downtown shops — where city officials hope the 200 or so employees will spend some of their $14 million annual payroll — it’s just a few minutes’ walk from the N.C. Research Campus, a $1.5 billion life sciences complex where studies focus mainly on nutrition and disease.
The Health Alliance has already taken part in public health research projects with Appalachian State, Duke and N.C. State universities, and officials say researchers are considering more ways to partner.
Jay White, chairman of the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, said because of those partnerships, work involving the Health Alliance will “resonate not only here, but throughout the world.”
The Cabarrus Health Alliance — the county’s health department — will itself make an impact. A national panel of public health experts selected it last year as their subject in designing a model public health department.
It will be more environmentally friendly in the building materials, the use of natural daylight to reduce dependence on electrical lighting, and storm water retention and filtration in special planting areas.
The new Health Alliance building will use electronic check-in, information kiosks and electronic scheduling to help patients and increase efficiency, as well as graphic signage for patients who speak little or no English.
The space inside will be flexible, with areas that can be combined for uses ranging from immunization clinics to social gatherings, exam rooms that can be used by multiple caregivers and office areas with modular furniture for easier reorganization.
“This project will serve not only citizens of this community and outlying areas, but will serve as a model of what efficient and effective health care can be,” U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell said.
To make way for all that, demolition will begin soon on a former paint store and a bank already on the site and officials say they expect the new Health Alliance to be built by December.
If that seems an aggressive schedule, more than one speaker Friday said it is “a long time coming.”
The new Health Alliance building was originally to be paid for as part of a $168 million bond package approved by the city and county in 2007. The money was to make improvements around the N.C. Research Campus and the debt repaid with increased tax revenue from campus-related development.
But when the economy came crashing down, so did the prospects for such a large financial undertaking. Subsequent financing packages got smaller, but even those failed to gain traction in such slippery economic conditions.
Finally late last year, Kannapolis and Cabarrus officials decided to sell $35 million in general revenue bonds to be repaid with taxes collected from the downtown district around the Research Campus. The boards later amended that to include Build America bonds subsidized by the federal government.
Some admitted Friday they had begun to question whether the new Health Alliance would ever be built.
“There were times when we thought it was not going to work out for us, but here it is,” Kannapolis Mayor Bob Misenheimer said. “It was a different economy when we started. … Now that economy has showed its importance is event greater.”
Pilkington, the Health Alliance CEO, said he doubted “at least 100 times” the agency would get to move from its cramped 33,00-square-foot quarters in a former store on South Cannon Boulevard to a spacious, modern facility.
“I was so discouraged. The economy happened to all of us; it happened to this building,” he said. “It really became something we became concerned was never going to happen.”
Pilkington credited Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg and N.C. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell as “rocks on this” who made the project happen. Hartsell, meanwhile, jokingly gave credit to Pilkington’s “intractable, abrasive, difficult personalty” for not letting it die.
Hartsell called the groundbreaking a “very emotional moment for me.” He noted a study released last week shows Cabarrus County with one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the nation, and that’s thanks, he said, to the Health Alliance.
The senator and others also pointed out the history of the department. It was one of the first rural public health departments in the nation, and it was the first in the country to administer polio vaccines.
Hartsell fought back tears when he said that among the pictures on a history wall planned for the new facility will be a photo of a woman holding a 6-year-old boy as he receives the polio vaccination. That boy was Hartsell.
Looking forward, he listed a number of people whose vision was coming to fruition in the new Health Alliance and the N.C. Research Campus, where studies aim to improve people’s lives by improving their health.
“This entity adjacent to the campus brings it home to us,” he said. “It’s got to become our vision, each and every one of us.”
Among those Hartsell citied as visionaries was David Murdock, the billionaire benefactor of the Research Campus and chairman of Dole Food Co. who offered the land at a reduced price and helped secure funding to get the Health Alliance near his venture.
And even he admitted to having been a little worried about the status of his own project. When the recession hit, he said, partners “said, ‘We’ve got to go home and take care of our money.’ ”
After an initial flurry of food manufacturers and others coming to Kannapolis to research and improve their products, interest in joining the campus waned with the nation’s economic condition.
“I thought I spent all that money for no good there … as we sat still,” he said. “But we’re back.”
Murdock, who flew in for the groundbreaking, said he met just before the ceremony with representatives of a company interested in the Research Campus. He made it clear he considers the Health Alliance a part of that.
“It warms my body as well as my brain to see this get started,” he said. “I’m very happy to be working with Fred (Pilkington) to add to the campus. … It will be very beneficial to the whole area health-wise, that’s what I think about, and jobs will come.”