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A long-awaited expansion and renovation will start this fall at Rice Care Center on Willmar Avenue Southwest. Over the next four years, $5.5 million will be invested in building a new short-term stay wing and renovating the existing nursing home. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

$5.5 million expansion and renovation project set to begin later in the year at Rice Care Center

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WILLMAR -- The first shovelful of dirt will be turned late this fall for a long-awaited $5.5 million expansion at the Rice Care Center.

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Over the next four years, the skilled nursing facility will be enlarged and renovated to enhance its ability to provide sub-acute and long-term care to an aging population.

Rice officials said the project is one that's needed in the community.

"We're trying to prioritize," said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Memorial Hospital. "We think we have an option that makes sense, that's viable and achieves the long-term outcome."

The board of directors of the city-owned hospital voted unanimously after a closed session last month to go ahead with the project.

Bids for the first phase -- construction of a new wing containing a short-term stay unit -- could be ready to present to the board by late summer or early fall.

Rice has been studying its options for the Rice Care Center long and hard for at least the past five years.

Built in the 1960s on the west end of Willmar Avenue, the facility is cramped and outdated. Despite some modernizing, most of the rooms remain semi-private. The mechanical systems also are in need of an overhaul.

"We're really constrained with the current facility," Schramm said. "It's on our strategic plan that one way or another we needed to address this. ... It's time to move forward."

Rice initially endorsed the concept of a brand-new senior campus -- long-term care, assisted living and independent senior housing all grouped on one site. But the plan stalled over issues about financial feasibility, and Rice officials were forced to start over.

Officials believe they now have a project that both meets the community need for skilled nursing and is financially sustainable.

"It stays focused on how can we better serve the residents," said Bill Fenske, chief financial officer at Rice. "We finally developed a plan that would work."

Construction and renovation will take place in four phases, starting this fall with a short-stay unit that will be added to the south side of the existing nursing home.

This new wing is for residents who typically are recently discharged from the hospital -- after joint replacement surgery, for instance -- yet need more sub-acute care before they can go home, said Troy Barrick, Rice Care Center administrator.

This is a growing population that requires different services and a different approach than that of the traditional long-term stay, he said. "They know they're going to be there for therapy and then they're going to go home," he said.

Ten private rooms, a therapy department and common area will be built in the first phase, followed by a second phase, starting in late 2011 or early 2012, of 13 more private short-term stay rooms.

In the third and fourth phases, beginning in 2013, both wings of the existing Rice Care Center will undergo major renovation to create resident "neighborhoods" with their own kitchen, dining and common areas and some additional private rooms. The building's mechanical systems will be upgraded as well.

Upon completion, the Rice Care Center will have 78 short- and long-term beds, the maximum for which it's licensed.

Rice will be investing about $1.4 million a year to complete each phase, for a total of $5.5 million in new construction and renovation.

The plan also includes an optional $2.1 million add-on that would convert all the long-term care beds into private rooms. Whether to go ahead with this fifth and final phase won't be decided until later, possibly in 2014, Fenske said. "That is an elective, voluntary decision."

Financing details are still being worked out, but the money will likely come from the Rice reserve fund and from local financing, he said. State regulations also allow nursing homes to recoup part of the cost of construction through Medicaid rates.

"The combination is what we're looking at," Fenske said. "It's very feasible."

Barrick anticipates that Rice Care Center residents and staff will be enthusiastic about the project.

The staff was excited when the final plan was shared with them this past month, he said. "They're getting fired up over it."

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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