One year ago this week, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health officials unveiled a plan they said would transform the delivery of health care in Harford County and western Cecil County with a new "hybrid" medical center to replace the aging Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and an expansion of the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.
A flurry of activity followed to enact specially tailored legislation approved in Annapolis giving Upper Chesapeake and other hospital operators an ability to move more swiftly on hospital closures than existing laws and regulations had allowed, but in the months since, the planned Havre de Grace medical center hasn't even entered the state review process, leaving doubts Upper Chesapeake can meet its self-stated goal of opening the facility in 2020.
"We only have estimates on when we can proceed on our Vision 2020 project," Martha Mallonee, a spokesperson for the health system, wrote in an email Tuesday. "The regulatory process is complex and time intensive."
As recently as early November, Upper Chesapeake CEO Lyle Sheldon told the Havre de Grace Mayor and City Council there would be a series of community meetings starting within weeks to receive input on what to do with the Harford Memorial site once the hospital closes, after Upper Chesapeake builds the new medical center on its planned Bulle Rock campus near the I-95/Route 155 interchange.
Sheldon also said an application to build the center and leave Harford Memorial would be filed with the Maryland Health Commission during the first quarter of 2017. "We've been going through a very deliberate process," he said at the time.
But now that application process won't start until at least the middle of this year, according to Mallonee, and the first of the many community meetings Sheldon pledged to hold, which had been scheduled for this Monday, Jan. 30, at the Havre de Grace Library has been pushed back to late spring.
A notification was posted Wednesday on the project website, http://umuch.org/vision-2020, which states: "The regulatory process for Vision 2020 is complex and time intensive and there is no update for us to share at this time. We expect the process to continue through at least the first half of 2017. We know our community wants to hear something different since last year's meetings."
Upper Chesapeake officials have pledged transparency as they move forward with a $180 million project, which has been controversial, especially regarding the closure of Harford Memorial.
The hospital takes up a full city block at Revolution Street and Union Avenue, and it has been a downtown Havre de Grace anchor for more than 100 years. Many in the community have expressed concerns about the economic impact of the hospital closing, as well as the prospect for reduced medical services, which Upper Chesapeake officials say will not be affected.
While there have not been any formal community meetings, there have been small gatherings with elected officials and business leaders from Havre de Grace and Bel Air, including a dinner for elected officials at Harford Memorial in December.
No new information about the project was shared at those gatherings, according to Mallonee.
"We just wanted those small stakeholder groups who had interest in what we're doing to have more face time with our planners," she said.
Havre de Grace Mayor Bill Martin praised UCH officials' efforts to keep elected officials and local residents informed. He noted they recently met with citizen members of the Havre de Grace Historic Preservation Commission and the city's Economic Development Advisory Board.
"They're really doing the best they can to lay out their game plan for the citizens so there's no surprises," Martin said Wednesday.
The health system still has a lengthy regulatory road to travel, a process that could take a year, followed by a construction period of about two years, according to Mallonee, which could conceivably meet the 2020 timetable.
"The waiting is part of the process," she noted in her email.
Community meetings will be scheduled and announced once a "solid timeline" is established for the project, she explained. They will be in public venues, such as libraries, "in, around and between" Bel Air and Havre de Grace, she said.
People can visit the Vision 2020 website for updates as well as background information on the project.
The health system last hosted meetings in Havre de Grace and Perryville during February and March of 2016 after the Vision 2020 Plan was unveiled.
In December, the Havre de Grace Planning Commission granted UCH a one-year extension on its proposed site plan to develop the 97-acre Bulle Rock site.
The plan remains as submitted to the city in 2013, when UCH wanted to build a hospital to replace Harford Memorial along with a hotel, office buildings and some retail on the property.
Until last winter, however, the project had languished following completion of the merger of Upper Chesapeake, which had been an independent organization, with the University of Maryland Medical System in late 2013.
Under the health system's current plans for the site, the free-standing medical center would have a full-service emergency department, but will be geared toward outpatient medical care and inpatient mental health care. Any medical surgical services currently offered at Harford Memorial would be shifted to the Bel Air hospital, which would have additional patient rooms added.
Other than the medical center proposal, Upper Chesapeake officials have not said precisely what may ultimately be developed on the remainder of the Bulle Rock site. They have been clear, however, that under current conditions in the health care industry, there is no economic justification for more than a single hospital in Harford County.