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Sullivan County nursing home may be rebuilt after renovation costs skyrocket

  • Sullivan County officials are considering a $49 million renovation for the county's nursing home in Unity, N.H. (Courtesy Sullivan County)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 9:38:08 PM
Modified: 9/15/2020 9:38:02 PM

UNITY — Sullivan County officials will decide sometime in the next two weeks whether to go back to the drawing board for a plan to upgrade the county nursing home, which was first built in the 1930s.

County officials estimate the cost to renovate the existing 156-bed nursing home in Unity will be roughly 20% higher than initially expected due to new state and federal standards that require more space to better accommodate wheelchairs and lifts for residents.

But, it’s not clear that county leaders or residents want to foot the total bill of $49 million for the renovation, or instead opt to construct a new nursing home for a total cost of somewhere between $62 million and $67 million. Officials had previously said they expected the project would total $35 million in construction costs only.

Officials were “unpleasantly surprised” when they saw what the price tag, said County Manager Derek Ferland in a phone interview on Monday. He said the project is necessary because the nursing home has aging infrastructure, including mechanical, heating and plumbing systems.

Lawmakers who comprise the county delegation previously ruled out other options such as maintaining the building as is, closing the nursing home or reducing the scope of the renovation, said Mary Bourque, the county’s director of facilities and operations, during a public hearing Monday night that was held in person at the county administration building in Newport as well as via Zoom and phone.

As proposed, the renovation would include gutting the nursing home’s Stearns building, making aesthetic improvements to the McConnell building and demolishing the Sanders building to clear space for an 82,000-square-foot addition, Bourque said.

The Sanders building was built in 1931, Stearns in 1975 and McConnell in 1997.

The plan would add space to residents’ rooms, reduce the ratio of residents per bathroom and increase the amount of communal space. The changes also would include energy improvements such as using heat produced by the facility’s walk-in coolers to heat the building. On the operational side, it would move food storage space closer to the kitchen and relocate the laundry from the nearby jail to the nursing home.

As part of the renovation proposal, the office for the county manager and commissioners would also move from Newport to the Unity complex.

Advantages of the renovation include the fact that it’s “shovel-ready” and that the project’s total cost is lower, Bourque said. On the other hand, the construction could affect the facility’s operations, reducing the communal spaces available to residents and temporarily reducing the number of people who can live there.

Building a new facility could mean reducing the footprint by about 10% and it could reduce the time and complexity of construction, according to Bourque. It wouldn’t require reducing the nursing home’s capacity during construction, would allow for the construction of a smaller and more efficient building, she said. As a result, she said the project might be more attractive to subcontractors, which could lead to a more competitive bidding process.

But launching a new project would come with its own challenges and uncertainties, she said. The county would have to forgo the money and time it has put into planning for the renovation. It also would be giving up — at least for the purposes of the nursing home — two buildings that the renovation would preserve. Uncertainties include future construction costs and the future of the bond market, she said.

Choosing to develop a plan for new construction doesn’t mean the county couldn’t go back to the renovation plan at a later date should the new construction fail to pan out for some reason, she said. Either project would take roughly three years to complete.

Several of the roughly 20 participants in the public hearing spoke in favor of building new in order to reduce the impact of the construction on nursing home residents and to take more time to plan rather than embarking on such a large project during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some participants suggested moving the nursing home to Claremont to be nearer services such as Valley Regional Hospital.

“The notion of being able to work on a new design for another year or 18 months is attractive in so far as it will give us some time to recover from COVID,” said state Rep. Judy Aron, R-South Acworth, in a summary of the thoughts she had heard from her constituents. “Most people I talk to are more leaning towards the new facility.”

Similarly, Plainfield resident Margaret Drye, the Republican candidate in the Sullivan 9 district, said the new construction “seems less disruptive” and flexible in that it would give the county two buildings — Stearns and McConnell — to put to use in other ways.

Other members of the delegation said they hadn’t heard much from their constituents. State Rep. Brian Sullivan, D-Grantham, said some in his district don’t know where the county nursing home is located.

“It just seems that new construction makes more sense,” Sullivan said. “It’s almost the same size; same amount as the renovation and the constituent I was talking to was saying it makes more sense to start over and perhaps in a different place.”

The delegation did not vote on Monday, but is expected to do so within two weeks of the public hearing. A vote of two-thirds majority is required for the project to move forward.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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