BLUE HILL, Maine — About 150 residents turned out to a public forum Tuesday to register concerns about Blue Hill Memorial Hospital’s recent purchase of two neighboring residential properties.
The meeting began with short speeches from several administrators, including Dr. Cathy Ober, chief medical officer for BHMH. She said the hospital currently has only a 50 percent market share of the Blue Hill Peninsula, and according to internal perception studies, many residents “have a lower opinion of BHMH than they did 10 years ago.”
If Tuesday’s meeting is any indication of residents’ sentiment, those numbers won’t be improving any time soon.
Residents are worried the hospital’s purchase of 18 and 24 Parker Point Road will degrade Blue Hill’s rural village aesthetic. Some also are angry that the hospital bought properties on one of downtown’s few residential streets.
Greg Roraff, CEO of BHMH, told residents that the hospital is sensitive to their concerns, but that it’s too early in the planning stages to know exactly what will be done with the buildings.
“We will look at each of those properties, and if there’s a way we can repurpose them, we will do that,” he said. “We will do everything we can to be respectful, but I can’t make promises tonight. Give us a few more months.”
Roraff said it was the hospital’s goal to use the buildings as they are. The property at 18 Parker Point Road is functional and recently remodeled, he said, and would likely not require dramatic work. The building at 24 Parker Point Road, formerly the Leighton Gallery, is in a state of disrepair.
Blue Hill lacks the zoning ordinances of larger towns and cities, so ultimately it’s the hospital’s board of directors that has final say over what happens with the two new parcels. There is a site plan review ordinance, but Selectman Jim Schatz — who also sits on the hospital’s board — said the town’s Planning Board would have little say over aesthetic or design questions.
The hospital purchased the buildings earlier this summer for an undisclosed amount, but the properties have a combined assessed value of about $1.05 million and occupy about 1.1 acres. The hospital bought the properties for the expansion opportunity they presented, he said. There isn’t much more room to grow within the hospital’s existing perimeter, and the purchase gives the hospital options.
Still, Roraff said the hospital has no immediate plans for the buildings, and it may be more interested in the land between the existing structures and the hospital than in the buildings themselves.
“It’s a substantial amount of property,” he said.
Several residents told hospital administrators they would rather see BHMH expand on to another campus or even shut down completely and move somewhere farther from the town’s village core. South Street was often mentioned as a possible site of expansion or relocation.
“We would be willing to support a move up to South Street or an area in town somewhere else,” said one woman. “There are many medical models that have split campuses, and we’re all smart enough to figure out how to get to whichever campus we need.”
Becky Gagner, another resident, also pushed the idea of relocation. “Looking into the future, aren’t you eventually going to run out space?” she said.
Roraff said the hospital’s board had considered moving to South Street, but the costs are prohibitive, he said. It would cost around $50 million to relocate the hospital, and there’s no guarantee that the current site would sell on the open market.
That price hurdle proved a catch-22 for residents, who said Blue Hill is a wealthy town, and that many residents would gladly open up their wallets if the hospital gave in to their desires.
“We live in a rich community,” said Ellen Best. “If you give it a reason to give you more money, give people like me a reason to give money, I think that money is out there.”
Hospital administrators said community dialogues will continue, and that an ad-hoc group including residents would be called to help steer decisions about the new properties.
Schatz, the selectman and BHMH board member, said he’s optimistic about whatever end may come.
“Looking back, the hospital could have prepared the community a little better,” he said. But “my feeling is there’s a will and a commitment to honor the concerns as much as possible.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.