For both the Hilltop neighborhood and lower-income Tacomans, a building celebrating its grand opening Saturday holds great promise.
The building, the Hilltop Regional Health Care Center, could finally prime the pump of economic development on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the Hilltop Business District's main street. The public grand opening ceremonies are set for 11 a.m. Saturday.
And the building and the 150 or so medical professionals who staff it could substantially bolster the quality and availability of medical and dental care to lower-income residents, many of whom live in central Tacoma.
The opening of the three-story, $27 million medical building and its adjacent 307-car garage will mark the biggest investment in the Hilltop Business District in decades. It could be the seed for other medical investments in the corridor between Tacoma's two largest medical complexes, MultiCare Health System's Tacoma General and Mary Bridge Children's hospitals on the north end of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Franciscan Health System's St. Joseph Medical Center campus on the south end of that arterial.
That corridor, once home to Tacoma's second busiest business district after downtown, has struggled for decades to find new purpose and prosperity.
The Hilltop Action Coalition, a neighborhood improvement group, said the health center will be a big plus for the neighborhood.
"The center will provide state-of-the-art medical care and jobs in the neighborhood," said Lisa Lawrence, coordinator for the coalition. "I think it will be a big help in revitalizing the business district," she said.
Now Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and others see the street becoming a kind of "Medical Mile" that could not only connect the two big medical centers but provide medical services to the hospitals and their patients.
David Flentge, the chief executive officer of Community Health Care, the countywide medical and dental care nonprofit that built the care center, said that he hopes the center will kickstart new Hilltop business development of all sorts.
The new center, when opens its doors for regular services Nov. 24, will not only bring dozens of new workers to the Hilltop but hundreds of medical and dental patients a day to the clinics in the 59,000-square-foot structure at 1202 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The City of Tacoma is working with a developer to restore and redevelop several nearby buildings including the former home of the notorious Browne's Star Grill, once a hangout for the famous and infamous alike in Tacoma.
And another plan calls for extending Sound Transit's Link light rail system, which now ends at the north end of downtown, to the Stadium Business District and then westward to Tacoma General and down Martin Luther King to St. Joseph.
But the health care center's primary purpose won't be economic development but rather providing patient care. About two-thirds of Community Health Care's patients are on government Medicaid programs. About 11 percent are served by Medicare and the remainder are under- or uninsured, said Flentge.
The health center's intake workers strive to find a way to serve all of those who need medical or dental care even if they don't have the ability to pay. The center's fees are based on income and family size on a sliding scale.
The cost of building the center came from a $12 million federal grant, state and local government funds, $7 million in so-called "new market tax credits" and private donations.
The center will supplant Community Health Care's existing downtown clinic, a modest, single-story clinic at South 11th and I streets.
The new center will substantially expand the services offered at the existing clinic. That clinic has 12 examination rooms staffed by four medical providers, doctors and nurse practitioners. The new Hilltop center will have 36 exam rooms on the building's second floor staffed by up to 15 medical providers.
In addition, the new clinic will offer dental services with 12 chairs and six dentists, a service not now offered at the existing central Tacoma clinic.
Beyond the basic medical and dental care, the new center will include a 17-room Urgent Care clinic open not only to Community Health Care patients but to the general public.
The center will feature a street-level pharmacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Way open to Community Health Care patients. Prescriptions will be lower priced than in some retail pharmacies because the health care center buys the drugs at the prices the federal government has negotiated for its own purposes.
Among the other services in the new center are a medical program for lower-income pregnant mothers designed to help those mothers before and after childbirth with preventative care and child rearing training, said Debbie Jacobson, a member of Community Health's marketing team.
The center also will house the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, which provides medical and dental care for some 300 patients living with HIV/AIDS.
The center, said Jacobson, includes several community-focused facilities including a room available to community groups for meetings. That room is accessible by a separate ground-level door on Martin Luther King that can be accessed after the clinics are closed if necessary.
The parking garage behind the center will include office space for the Hilltop Action Coalition, a neighborhood group focused on community betterment.
The building's light-filled interior will be decorated with art from Hilltop youths and artists, said Jacobson. Goodwill Industries will staff a coffee shop in the building.
The new building will house residency programs for both medical and dental professionals, on-the-job training programs to give newly-educated doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners real world experience under the experienced eye of veteran physicians and dentists.
Community Health Care is still recruiting additional doctors and medical professionals to fully staff the center, said Flentge. Physicians are retiring from medicine faster than new ones are entering the profession, he said. Pierce County alone is some 100 doctors short of its need.
About half of the building's third floor has been equipped with utility connections but is unfinished. That space is designated for future expansion, said the Community Health Care chief.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663