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Denley: Still seven years away, Ottawa’s new Civic hospital campus will be a huge step forward

The details announced Tuesday should finally create a sense of momentum for the long-delayed project, and that’s important because it faces a significant fundraising challenge.

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After 14 years of planning and pondering, the Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic campus is finally moving closer to reality. Well, OK, it’s still an estimated seven years from completion, but the long overdue update the hospital released Tuesday still marks a rapid acceleration from the languid pace of the past.

It wasn’t entirely apparent from CEO Cameron Love’s presentation, but the past year has contained almost all of the meaningful progress the hospital has made on its expansion plan. Just a year ago, it had a rough drawing of a building that looked like a doughnut with two bites out of it. Love calls that version “very much a preliminary concept.”

Now, the hospital has a plan that will deliver on the many challenges posed by creating a modern high-tech hospital and siting it on an unusual piece of property that features a fairly steep hill. Love says the new Civic “will transform health care in Ottawa for 50 years,” and no doubt it will. It is certainly a magnificent replacement for the Civic building, which will be more than 100 years old by the time the new hospital opens.

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Love’s claim that the hospital will be “city-building” and “a landmark” is perhaps more debatable, but all we really need it to be is a modern, functional hospital and it will certainly be that.

ALSO: First design details of new $2.8-billion Civic are released, include single rooms and advanced technology 

One of the big gains is that every room in the hospital will be one patient only. That’s a vast improvement over the Civic, where only 15 per cent of rooms are single-patient. Fifty per cent are semi-private, and 35 per cent are three- or four-person wards, just the sort of rooms that are being decried as dangerously inadequate in the province’s long-term care system.

Bed numbers will also be up in the new Civic, an important gain in a province that has shut down much of its economy because of limited heath care capacity. The current Civic, excluding the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, has 460 beds. The new Civic will have 640. That’s a substantial gain, although it is difficult to say if it will be enough given an expanding and aging population and the hospital’s mission to serve eastern Ontario and western Quebec, as well as Ottawa.

Love’s announcement Tuesday should finally create a sense of momentum for the long-delayed project, and that’s important because the hospital faces a significant fundraising challenge. The provincial government will pay only $2.1 billion of the expected $2.8 billion cost. Love said the community will be expected to raise $400 million with the other $300 million coming from parking revenue and commercial rental opportunities on the hospital site. That part of the plan is undetailed at the moment.

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Cameron Love, president and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, is shown outside the nearly 100-year-old current Civic campus.
Cameron Love, president and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, is shown outside the nearly 100-year-old current Civic campus. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

The key now is to change the story from one of delay to one of action. Curiously, the hospital chose to release details of its important planning milestone at a meeting of the city’s finance and economic development committee rather than running its own event aimed straight at the people who will use the new hospital. The normal process would have been a media technical briefing with the people who created the plan, followed by a YouTube presentation for the public.

To make it worse, the main part of the presentation to councillors was a long, rambling description of virtually everything by the new hospital’s architect. Councillors visible on the Zoom call looked bored to death and one could hardly blame them.

The hospital has some serious work to do before it takes this presentation to the public. Dropping meaningless phrases like “holistic sustainability” would be a start.

To pull off its fundraising challenge, the hospital leadership has to get used to grabbing public attention and taking centre stage. For now, though, it’s something to be able to write a sentence about a health care milestone that doesn’t include the words “grim” and “COVID.”

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Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at [email protected]

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