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Hospital Will Have an Impact on the Town, Whether it Stays or Goes, Task Force Says

Matthew Hersh

A task force assembled to look at the future of Princeton HealthCare System held its inaugural meeting last week and outlined a strategic plan as to how it would be involved in decisions the hospital would make, namely, the decision regarding relocation.

The HealthCare Task Force was created to provide a public forum for the hospital to present its strategic plan. Dubbed as a "super zoning-planning board from both municipalities" by Princeton Borough Mayor Joe O'Neill, the task force will carry out various planning and zoning regulations that would normally be spread through various municipal bureaucracies. Barry Rabner, president and chief executive of PHCS, addressed the group, outlining the circumstances leading up to the hospital's current strategic plan. The plan has not yet been made available for either the task force or the public.

Mr. Rabner did say, however, that the plan does not recommend whether the hospital should build on its seven-acre site at 253 Witherspoon Street location or vacate the premises for a comprehensive campus, ideally taking up 50 acres, in a surrounding municipality that would house all factions of PHCS, including Princeton House Behavioral Health, Merwick Rehab Hospital and Nursing Care, Princeton HomeCare Services, and the Princeton Surgical Center.

Mr. Rabner made clear that the hospital's current facilities are inadequate and will need revision within the next five years. The hospital's plan stops just short of making a recommendation for changing locale. Instead, it outlines why the hospital, in its current state, cannot continue to function as a competitive facility.

The hospital president said PCHS' strategic plan would undergo a process involving the community before making a final location recommendation.

The hospital's strategic plan began taking shape about a year ago, and currently 12 key elements are included in the plan, Mr. Rabner said.

He added that this process has included exploring 50-acre sites outside of Princeton and ways to "build up" the current site. Mr. Rabner said PHCS began talking with Princeton University at the end of August 2003.

"[The University] is an obvious potential user." He added that the University has been "doing [its] homework, and we've helped with just about anything it's asked to help serve its purposes."

That thinking ends with the hospital's decision, Mr. Rabner said. He said discussions with the University have remained tentative and conducted with the fact in mind that no final decision has been made as to whether it will leave its facility.

However, the whole plan is not quite ready for public consumption, Mr. Rabner said. He estimated that the outline could be presented privately to members of the task force in June, and then presented to the public at a later date.

"We don't yet have all the hard facts," Mr. Rabner said.

Task force members will include both mayors, Township Deputy Mayor Bill Enslin, Borough Council President Mildred Trotman, representatives from the Princeton Regional Health Commission and the Princeton Regional Planning Board, and chairs of the Borough and Township Zoning Boards of Adjustment.

A regional hospital, the University Medical Center of Princeton's primary service area stretches as far as Jamesburg, Hightstown, Pennington, and Skillman. Its secondary service area extends from Trenton to Somerset. However, all appointees on the hospital task force are Princeton representatives.

HealthCare Task Force Chairman Marvin Reed said this is the case because beginning with Princeton is simply one step in the hospital's strategic planning.

"It's really a two-part process with two alternatives," Mr. Reed said. "[The hospital] is going to determine what they feel is an outline for their long-range expansion plans."

Once the hospital presents its expansion needs, Mr. Reed said, then the task force will determine whether those needs can be accommodated in Princeton, or if is more sensible to move the facility elsewhere.

If the hospital can remain in town, Mr. Reed said a commitment needs to be made to do the rezoning that would be required to build on the current hospital site.

Mr. Reed said that if it is determined that there is a limit to what the town can absorb, then the second process would be to explore out-of-town sites, which PHCS has already begun to do.

The final process would be if the hospital were to move, the community would have to decide what to do with the vacated Witherspoon Street facility.

"We don't want them moving away and leaving this white elephant on our hands," Mr. Reed said.

He added that if removed from town, the hospital would have to collect a reasonable compensatory property sale amount to build a new campus elsewhere.

"[PHCS] also needs to make a reasonable sale on the property to derive sufficient income to make the down payment on what the hospital would have to build."

Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kristin Appelget said that in discussions with PHCS' Mr. Rabner, he had outlined a multi-step process that looks at the whole picture, and breaks it down into individual processes.

As the West Windsor Township Council president, Ms. Appelget said she feels the process is an inclusive one from a municipal standpoint, and that other towns will be addressed after the fate of the hospital's Princeton property is determined.

"The fact that the [task force] is comprised of Princeton leaders is not troubling at all," she said. "Ultimately, the hospital is going to make this decision."

Ms. Appelget added that previous hospital-organized task forces have, in the past, included officials from West Windsor, including its mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh.

"I believe Barry Rabner will be inclusive in the overall process," she said.

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