Saturday, Sep 07 2013 07:00 PM

Development of northeast medical plaza speeding up

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    By Contributed photo

    Photo courtesy of G.L. Bruno Associates This artistic rendering by RBMC, LLC shows a proposed outpatient surgery center that Kern County could lease from Rio Bravo Medical Campus LLC for Kern Medical Center. A developer said construction on the building could begin within 30 days after a lease is signed. The project is part of a proposed medical campus at the southwest corner of Morning Drive and Highway 178.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer

A medical complex proposed to serve the growing, affluent neighborhoods of northeast Bakersfield is gaining steam again after the bad economy slowed the project, the manager said.

Gary Bruno, president and CEO of G.L. Bruno Associates, said the project at the corner of Highway 178 and Morning Drive has picked up "incredible new momentum" in the last year.

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Cancer treatment has become a growing business in Bakersfield as hospitals and providers aim to capture patients that leave town for medical care.

In April, San Joaquin Community Hospital opened a 60,000-square-foot cancer center across the street from the hospital's main campus. Last December, Kern County's nearly 30-year-old free standing cancer center -- the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center -- announced a partnership with Bakersfield's three Dignity Health hospitals.

Dr. Ravi Patel, CBCC's medical director and managing partner, said a third proposed cancer center for northeast Bakersfield could meet some needs but "in a limited way."

Patel said an integrated cancer center should offer everything from chemotherapy and radiation therapy to clinical trials. CBCC on Truxtun Avenue has 100,000 square feet dedicated only to cancer care.

Medical services seem to be migrating more toward the southwest, Patel said. But he also thought a medical campus in the northeast could be good for that area of Bakersfield.

"There is no other health care space out there, so there may be physicians that want to rent or open an office out there," Patel said.

The project developer Gary Bruno, president and CEO of G.L. Bruno Associates, said the new cancer center building would not only house cancer-related medical services.

"It will not all focus on cancer. Most of it will," Bruno said.

With two cancer centers already serving Kern County, Bruno said this group still firmly believes there is room for a third.

"We've done exhaustive surveys actually starting about five years ago," and the outflow of patients seeking cancer treatment is incredible, he said.

"We're very comfortable (with opening a cancer center)," he said.

Several leases are in the works to fill a proposed cancer center building and another has been submitted to Kern County to open an outpatient surgery center for Kern Medical Center in a different building on the campus.

"We're really only waiting on leases to be executed and all of those are simply in the processing stages now," Bruno said.

The medical campus was anticipated to welcome its first patients in late 2012, but the buildings have yet to be erected. The economic downturn slowed the project, Bruno said.

The project is backed by Rio Bravo Medical Campus LLC, which Bruno described as a partnership between Fresno-based investment company Lyles United LLC and an investment group started by more than a dozen local physicians and Bruno's Fresno firm.

A group of doctors proposed the project in 2005. Estimated to cost more than $150 million, the 40-plus acre project also includes a senior living facility and retail space.

"Our focus right now's on the medical campus," he said. "Everything else right now has taken a secondary position."

The Rio Bravo Medical Campus group has put $10 million into the project site, including road, sewer and water work, Bruno said. The project has also brought Morning Drive up to the campus entrance, ending where the road will be tied into Highway 178.

"A lot of things have been happening, it's just we haven't done the buildings," Bruno said.

Plans submitted to the city of Bakersfield in June show the medical campus' four buildings would cover 178,264 square feet.

The largest building would be the cancer and imaging center at just less than 65,000-square-feet, with about 38,000-square-feet on the first floor dedicated to cancer and imaging, and about 26,000-square-feet of doctor offices on the second floor.

The proposed outpatient surgery center would be nearly 34,000 square feet, nearly evenly divided between the surgery center on the first floor and doctor offices on the second.

The other two buildings would total 40,000 square feet each.

Bruno said he couldn't disclose what entities the group is ironing out leases with for the cancer center building.

But Dr. Bernard Maristany, a local radiologist and project investor, offered more detail when he spoke before Kern County supervisors in March.

"Kern Radiology will be opening an imaging center on this site. There will be oncology services, an urgent care center, multi-specialty physician offices and an on-site pharmacy," Maristany told the board. "This project will create 400 permanent jobs just on the medical campus alone. This will be an engine of growth in northeast Bakersfield."

Kern Medical Center CEO Paul Hensler said at the meeting that the hospital was "bumping into capacity issues" with surgery space, but hoped to attract a different market -- i.e. more patients with private health insurance -- by opening an ambulatory surgery center.

Hensler also said it would be about 40 percent cheaper to operate an outpatient surgery center than to run inpatient operating rooms.

"We do feel it is very important that this (surgery center) be in an attractive, medically-oriented plaza in order to attract the clientele and improve the payer mix," Hensler said.

In a letter to the board, Hensler wrote that the surgery center's lease, operating expenses and equipment were predicted to cost nearly $1.4 million annually, and management fees would cost about $300,000 a year.

Supervisors unanimously approved Hensler's proposal to partner with Rio Bravo Medical Campus LLC.

On Thursday, Hensler said he expects the agreement will get the green light in the next month.

"We believe that the whole Rio Bravo region out there will be developing rapidly," he said. "We think that intersection will become a hub of that whole area."

If the county approves the lease for the surgery center, Bruno said construction on that building would start within 30 days. Work on the largest building would begin 60 to 90 days after leases are signed for that space. Bruno expects those leases to be finalized in the next 60 days.

The surgery center could be constructed in 12 months and the cancer center building would take 18 months to complete, Bruno said.

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