Regional Cancer Center Promises to Be Transformative Investment in Wheeling | News, Sports, Jobs

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photo by: John McCabe

West Virginia University Health System president and CEO Albert Wright on Friday discusses the commitment WVU Medicine is making to Wheeling through a planned regional cancer center at the site of the former Ohio Valley Medical Center in Center Wheeling.

WHEELING — Ohio Valley cancer patients will have a place much closer to home to get top-level medical care, as leaders from WVU Medicine, the City of Wheeling and Ohio County announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar regional cancer center in Center Wheeling, transforming the old Ohio Valley Medical Center campus into a state-of-the-art facility.

Officials from all three groups gathered Friday to discuss a $70 million investment for the new center. As part of the plan, all remaining vacant buildings on the OVMC campus will be demolished and removed, and a new regional cancer center will be built on the Center Wheeling property by WVU Health System and the WVU Cancer Institute.

“This is a huge win for WVU Medicine, and I think it is going to be a huge win for the city of Wheeling and for Ohio County,” said Albert Wright Jr., president and CEO of the West Virginia University Health system. “We’re going to build a spectacular building and program here. It’s one that we hope you and your loved ones will never need, but if and when you do, we’ll be here.”

While the venture is still early in the planning stages, officials said the new center will likely offer medical oncology, radiation oncology and mammography services, a melanoma center, a specialty pharmacy, telemedicine capabilities, multidisciplinary tumor boards and academic research facilities. The preliminary vision calls for a four-story facility with between 75,000 and 90,000 square feet of space, a workforce of about 150 employees and a service volume of about 40,000 patient visits per year.

It is estimated that the center could be opened within five years.

“It was devastating when OVMC closed,” Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said, noting that the hospital had served the Ohio Valley for more than a century before it officially closed in 2019. “However, today we embark on a new beginning with plans for high-quality health care for current and future generations of our citizens. The new state-of-the-art facility that will be constructed here will advance cancer care for our entire region for many, many years to come. It will also serve as a terrific new economic engine for the Center Market area, downtown and the city as a whole.”

Following OVMC’s closure, members of the city council acquired the sprawling property with the intention of having a say in its future.

“City council two and a half years ago took a significant risk in accepting this campus for future development,” Herron noted. “They did their due diligence, deliberated thoughtfully and made the difficult decision that they thought was in the best interest of the city. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, but today that vision and risk is beginning to pay off in significant ways.”

Wright said this project would not have been possible had city leaders not taken the risk of acquiring the former hospital property and stepping in to serve as stewards of its next chapter.

“I think the city did what they needed to do to take over this campus, and then they got very creative working with us to find a path forward that allowed us to make this an economically feasible plan,” Wright said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the city.”

WVU Medicine has taken great strides in advancing healthcare services to communities in the region in recent years. In the Ohio Valley alone, WVU Medicine has taken the wheel at Reynolds Memorial Hospital and Wheeling Hospital, as well as Barnesville Hospital, Harrison Community Hospital in Cadiz, Wetzel County Hospital in New Martinsville and other institutions across the Mountain State.

“To stand here today and look at how we’re starting to see health care prosper in the Northern Panhandle is pretty exciting,” Wright said, citing the number of top-notch physicians and specialists that WVU Medicine has been recruiting to the Wheeling area recently. That trend is expected to continue with the construction of the new cancer center, he said. “The future of health care here now is exceptionally bright.”

Bernie Twigg, chairman of the board of directors at WVU Medicine Reynolds Memorial and Wheeling hospitals, said once the new facility is operational, it will have a huge impact on the landscape of health care in the entire region.

“It will mean that your families don’t travel to Pittsburgh, you don’t go to Columbus or Cleveland – you stay here in Wheeling, close to your family, and you’ll get the best care you can find,” Twigg said . “This will be remarkable. A few years from now, we’ll all stand in awe as we cut the ribbon.”

Twigg added that working with WVU Medicine over the past few years has given him great confidence in the potential such a venture promises to bring to the area.

“When these folks say they’re going to do something, they do it,” he said.

Officials said this plan’s momentum is an example of the unique cooperation between the city, county and WVU Medicine.

“This shows how strong we can be when we work together,” Ohio County Commission President Randy Wharton said. “I think there’s not any project or any amount of activity that is beneficial to Ohio County and the city of Wheeling that we can’t accomplish together. We work together all of the time, and I’m very, very proud of that.”

Herron agreed, adding that the working relationship between the entities that brought the plan for the new regional cancer center to this point has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s a shining example of city-county cooperation,” he said.

“This particular project is probably, in my time, one of the most epic redevelopment plans that I have seen in many, many years in the city of Wheeling,” Wharton said. “What’s good for the city is good for the county. When you take a look around down here a few years from now, you won’t recognize the place.”

Douglass Harrison, president and CEO of WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital and WVU Medicine Reynolds Memorial Hospital, said the need for regional cancer care in the Ohio Valley is critical, as is the need to work collaboratively to bring it together.

“This is about strategic partnerships,” Harrison said. “It advances the clinical capabilities of what we offer in this region when it comes to cancer care. The number of new cancer cases that are coming into our center every day is staggering.”

The new center will not only serve the needs of the community but will also have a tremendous economic impact on the area, Harrison noted. A collaborative plan has been put together to address asbestos abatement and demolition of the number of existing buildings on the former OVMC campus. Herron explained that the city of Wheeling will contribute $2 million toward demolition, as will the county. WVU Medicine will contribute $3 million for demolition, and the city has already secured federal funding of $500,000 for asbestos abatement. Another $2.2 million is being pursued through a US Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 108 loan/grant to serve as a contingency fund in the event that abatement and demolition costs exceed initial estimates. Herron explained that site preparation that led to the development of the Lowe’s store and Orrick facilities in Center Wheeling utilized the same HUD Section 108 mechanism as a safety net.

Overall, the demolition is expected to cost between $7 million and $9 million, Herron said.

The Valley Professional Center building, where the new Wheeling Police Department Headquarters is being completed, and the former Robert C. Byrd Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Center, which was the only building not part of the city’s acquisition of former OVMC buildings from previous owner MPT in 2019, are expected to be the only facilities from the former hospital to remain standing and operational. Even the city-owned Center Wheeling Parking Garage is expected to be razed after next year.

All other tenants of the campus have moved out, Herron noted, with the exception of the City of Wheeling’s Parks & Recreation Department. Once the police department relocates from the City-County Building to the new headquarters later this year, space will be opened up at the department’s former location. A reshuffling of city departments will likely take place afterward, and the Recreation Department is expected to have its operations housed there.

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The new cancer center will not be part of the Tax Increment Financing district as the previous hospital operation was, Herron noted. The new facility will be exempt from the TIF district, as the campus is now owned by the city. Wheeling officials recently combined the downtown TIF district and the Center Wheeling TIF district to create one larger district to help generate funds for economic development projects.

Herron said it is hoped that the site can be transferred to WVU by the end of the year, and demolition is expected to take between six to 12 months.

With the second highest cancer mortality rate in the United States, West Virginia’s most common cancer diagnoses are female breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, and colon and rectum cancer, WVU Medicine officials noted.

“The needs are legendary,” Dr. Hannah Hazard-Jenkins, surgical oncologist and director of the WVU Cancer Institute, said. “This new center will become a critical part of the WVU Cancer Institute’s integrated network of cancer care across the state and region, and will be connected to a broader team of cancer specialists and subspecialists for consultations and expert opinions.”

After the new cancer center opens, the Schiffler Cancer Center at WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital, the cancer facilities at Reynolds and the health system’s other local cancer treatment locations will consolidate into the new facility. The space previously occupied by cancer services on those existing campuses will then be backfilled by other clinical activities, Wright said.

“On behalf of the city of Wheeling — and as a WVU alumni and proud Mountaineer — I want to say thank you to WVU Health Care for what this investment means to the Center Wheeling neighborhood, to the city of Wheeling, to Ohio County and to the lives of residents all over the Ohio Valley,” Wheeling Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said. “Not only is this possibly one of the largest financial investments ever made in Ohio County, but more importantly it’s a major investment in the healthcare of our residents. Whereas a few years ago, our residents lost a health care option when this campus went dark. Today we are standing here announcing a new healthcare facility that will not only improve the lives of our residents, but will likely save lives.”



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