Challenges at St. Aug’s, but reopening St. Agnes still a priority

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2014 

— Despite an abrupt change in leadership, layoffs, furloughs and challenges with finances and enrollment, St. Augustine’s University is eager to move forward with reopening the historic St. Agnes Hospital on campus as a primary and urgent care center, the school’s acting president says.

“It’s clearly in our top five priorities,” said Everett Ward, who was named St. Aug’s interim president in April after the board of trustees ousted Dianne Boardley Suber.

Ward, a lifelong Raleigh resident who earned his undergraduate degree from St. Aug’s in 1982, said the reopening of St. Agnes ranks just behind improving the university’s overall financial stability, increasing student enrollment and retention and the completion of the football stadium. The stadium has languished in a near complete state since early this year after a contractor, alleging he’s owed $675,000, sued for breach of contract.

A September audit of the university revealed problems with financial controls, and enrollment was down in 2013, resulting in a $3 million drop in net tuition revenue. The university eliminated 15 positions, mostly through attrition and retirements, and two months before Suber’s firing, she announced one-week furloughs were likely for employees.

Billie Redmond, the chief operating officer at Coldwell Banker Commercial Trademark Properties in Raleigh, said the St. Agnes project has been ready to launch for quite some time, but the principals wanted to delay work until the school had a change in leadership.

“It is still very much viable,” Redmond said. “We are ready in almost every way: equity, capital, tenants. We decided to wait until the university got its legs again and finally understands all of its financial challenges and what their priorities are. We think they need a little more time to get their bearings.”

Two years ago this month, Redmond announced that her company, in partnership with Rex Healthcare, was committed to rebuilding from the shell of the St. Agnes building, which sits on the edge of the St. Aug’s campus near the intersection of Oakwood and State streets. The last patients left the hospital in the early 1960s, and the building remains a roofless, windowless brick and concrete ruin.

Redmond says Rex Healthcare “is still at the table as the head tenant,” and that the university and developers are still communicating with WakeMed, the Duke University Medical Center and UNC Hospitals about their possible involvement, too.

“For Rex Healthcare, it’s an opportunity to spread their brand in Southeast Raleigh,” Redmond said. “But at the end of the day, we want all of our health care providers on board.”

Rex Healthcare spokesman Alan Wolf said this week that the hospital system continues to be “committed to the St. Agnes project and to working with St. Augustine’s University and the community as it moves ahead.”

“Everyone is waiting to see how quickly it will get going,” Wolf said.

Redmond and Ward both spoke highly of WakeMed’s new chief operating officer, Donald Gintzig, a retired Navy rear admiral and career health care executive who served as interim CEO and president of WakeMed Health & Hospitals before his appointment last month as the hospital system’s permanent leader.

Ward said he met with Gintzig last week, and that the two discussed the medical needs of the Southeast Raleigh community and the university’s role.

Gintzig was not available for comment.

“St. Augustine’s has always taken an interest in the health of this community,” said Ward, who added that it is imperative to teach new generations of university students about the importance of public health, especially in their immediate community.

Rehab plans slow to take hold

Plans for revitalizing St. Agnes have faltered in recent years.

Redmond noted last year that in 2007 she had lined up two private health care businesses that intended to house dialysis and prostate centers in the building. That was before the economy bottomed out.

In April 2011, redevelopment plans for the hospital were waylaid again by a series of tornadoes that ripped through the campus and ravaged several of the buildings.

The historic hospital, created in an era of segregated health care, closed its doors more than a half century ago in 1961.

St. Agnes Hospital was founded in 1896 by Sarah Hunter, wife of A.B. Hunter, an Episcopalian priest who became principal of St. Augustine’s College in 1888. For many, the old hospital is best known as the place where the first black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson died in 1946 after the roadster he was driving swerved off a highway in Franklinton.

The hospital, at the peak of segregation, gained widespread financial support from blacks and whites alike. During a 1922 fund-raising campaign, three members of Raleigh’s Ku Klux Klan walked into the facility and donated five $10 bills, according to an article that appeared in the 1961 edition of the Journal of The National Medical Association.

For nearly 70 years, the hospital was the only well-equipped medical facility for blacks between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans, La. The hospital also served as a training ground for hundreds of black nurses along the East Coast, the place where area doctors – black and white – got their start in medicine and where thousands of black babies were born, including St. Augustine’s interim president.

“I am personally invested because I was born there: Nov. 6, 1958,” Ward said. “My grandfather’s uncle helped with the construction of St. Agnes.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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