PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
Niagara Health System provincial supervisor Kevin Smith will meet toward the end of the month with Health Minister Deb Matthews to discuss the impact of donated land for the proposed south-end hospital.
Smith, who lauded the Grassl family for their gift of 30 acres in Niagara Falls, said the first priority is to get the new St. Catharines facility up and running March 24, but after that he expects to discuss next steps on his recommendation that a single hospital be constructed to replace aging buildings in Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne and Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“Right now our focus is on the 24th and getting the new hospital open and the patients moved,” he said. “But I look forward to chatting with the minister about how we have seen this kind of development and community alignment.
“She wants to see us get through some work that is immediately before us, like getting the St. Catharines hospital running and creating a skills-based board and continuing to work on improvement of the relationship with the community. But as we get toward the end of that process we will be talking about the appropriate moves on my recommendation for the creation of a south site.”
On Friday Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati used part of his State of the City Address to reveal that John Grassl, a Toronto developer, had donated land at the corner of Biggar and Montrose Roads for the new hospital.
Diodati said the Grassl family has had considerable land holdings in and around Niagara Falls for more than 25 years. Diodati didn’t know the value of the land, but said it would be in the millions. It is located directly across the road from the Arpad Hungarian Hall.
Diodati said the land is already serviced with sewers and electricity. The city spent about $12 million on that infrastructure a number of years ago, recognizing the area as one of future growth. He said something like a hospital will spur residential and commercial investment. Now they just have to make it happen. That could prove to be a challenge. Smith, appointed by Health Minister Deb Matthews to come in and fix health care in Niagara, has recommended the best way forward is to build a second hospital in the sound-end of Niagara Falls. The government still hasn’t endorsed that suggestion, though. And even with free land now in the picture, Matthew stopped short once again in a statement to Bullet News on Friday.
“I know Kevin Smith is working on getting new governance in place for the Niagara Health System and a lively discussion about the future of health care continues to take place in South Niagara,” Matthews said. “It’s great to see members of the community getting engaged in the future of health care.
“There are many more steps that need to be taken, at the community, hospital and LHIN-level, before any decision would be made on a capital project such as this.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne has gone a step further, saying there are no “immediate” plans to build the south Niagara hospital.
Still, Smith welcomed the Grassl donation both for its generosity and for the signal it sends that Niagara is starting to develop a unified front on the issue. That is not to say there are not opposing voices out there, but Smith believes solidarity is growing.
“One would never look at a donation in the millions of dollars and not say it’s absolutely remarkable and generous beyond imagination,” he said. “But I do think it is also important that a community leader and their family have come forward to say we believe in the system, we believe in the model, we believe the plan. That is immeasurably important.
“Those of us in the system can have our opinions and squabbles, but I think when the consumer steps up and says, ‘I am persuaded by the model and we want to be part of it,’ then that’s a very significant move.”
Matthews has said previously she is watching carefully to see how Niagara reacts to different ideas for heath care. In other words, if she senses the community doesn’t want a new hospital, then she won’t spend taxpayer money on one.
“She wants to hear and see how the community is coming together in terms of what it wants with its health-care system,” she said. “The more that Niagara gets on the bandwagon, if that’s the right term, then I don’t see that as … a positive.
“She wants to build an appropriate system for Niagara and I think this offers another option and it does it without additional cost. Obviously she has to make difficult decisions every day, and she has demonstrated by bold and brave moves that she is not easily backed into a corner if she doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do or its not the right time.”
NHS vice-president of patient services and Greater Niagara General Hospital site chief Derek McNally called the news “another piece of the puzzle that has to happen.”
“We are so thrilled to get this news, not just for the NHS but for the community as well. A huge thanks to this family … I think we need to continue to encourage our community to work together so we can move this project forward and have it become a reality for health care in the southern tier.”
The Grassls were not in attendance at Diodati’s speech Friday, but John Grassl made comments in a short video.
“The Grassl family is proud of its role to bring advanced health care to Niagara,” he said. “The Grassl family stands ready to assist in any way they can.”