This story originally appeared in Delaware Prosperity Partnership.
When Bayhealth announced plans to build a new hospital off Route 1 in Milford, downtown residents were worried. Surrounded by homes, Milford Memorial Hospital was a beloved city fixture. Indeed, parts of the building date back to 1938.
“No one wanted to see a 250,000-square-foot facility boarded up to become a massive white elephant,” says Meir Gelley, CEO of Nationwide Healthcare Services, which purchased the old hospital site in June 2019.
Nationwide, which owns and operates long-term-care and skilled nursing facilities, specializes in turning around old properties. But the energetic Gelley did not want to limit the building’s reuse to long- and short-term, post-acute care. He saw the need for preventative and ongoing services.
“I always dreamed of creating a program so that if someone needs us, we’re still in touch and have services to offer,” he explains.
With the help of Ohio-based Dynamis Advisors, Nationwide has transformed the former hospital into the vibrant Milford Wellness Village. In just a few years — and during a pandemic — the $30 million Milford Wellness Village has racked up an impressive roster of tenants that have created new jobs: 220 and counting.
Checking All the Boxes
Bayhealth hired Dynamis Advisors to explore the potential use for the hospital after the healthcare system’s departure. The firm helps providers and the communities design, finance, develop and manage innovative healthcare real estate projects.
Having worked with Nationwide in the past, Dynamis President Scott Keller reached out to Gelley. “We said, ‘Are you interested?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and the rest is history.”
“Dynamis was extremely helpful,” Gelley recalls. “We met with all the stakeholders and the community.”
Milford was a logical setting for the ambitious multi-use endeavor. “Milford is one of the fastest-growing towns in the state,” Gelley notes. It sits on the border between Kent and Sussex Counties, which have a large population of retirees and people who need affordable services.
The Clarke Avenue building was available and had the proper infrastructure. Although it required renovations — one wing dates to 1954 — it had been maintained up until Bayhealth opened its new hospital near Route 1. “It checked all the boxes,” Gelley says of the facility.
The site was also in Delaware. “There are friendly opportunities and room for advancement here,” says Gelley, who has worked in surrounding states. “Delaware is very welcoming.”
The village is not his first project in the First State. Nationwide, which came to Delaware in 2006, also operates Regal Heights Healthcare & Rehabilitation in Hockessin and Regency Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington.
It Takes a Village
Nationwide removed the hospital’s labyrinth of corridors to create a straightforward “Main Street”-style flow between tenant services.
Polaris Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, licensed for 150 beds, occupies the second and third floors while Banyan Treatment Centers is on the fourth. La Red Health Center, a familiar name in Sussex County, opened in the village in November 2019.
Also on board:
- Kidz Ink Academy of Early Academics Child Care Center, which has classrooms for 160 children
- Nurses ’n Kids, which cares for infants and children with acute and chronic medical needs, developmental delays and nutritional deficiencies
- The Lab at Seascape
- WeCare Program, which helps seniors stay healthy in their own homes
- AquaCare Physical Therapy
The village does not duplicate services, Gelley says. “It’s really filling in the gaps.” He’s hoping to lease space to a program of all-inclusive care for the elderly or PACE program, which is like a “nursing home without the overnight stay,” he explains. “They have access to doctors, dietitians and pain care.” Currently, he says, there is only one PACE program in Delaware.
Such services have become especially important as so many people want to remain in their homes. Since the pandemic, many seniors have become skittish about long-term-care facilities, which were vulnerable in COVID-19’s early days.
The village has space for additional “like-minded” organizations that “enhance each other and benefit from each other’s presence,” he says. There is a spirit of collaboration. La Red, for instance, offered COVID-19 vaccinations to everyone in the building.
Gelley does not hesitate when asked how he will measure the project’s success. “When I am making people’s lives better — that’s what I consider my success.”