Hospitals Are Not “Activators”

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Healthcare is a $3 trillion industry in the US. Not surprisingly, we look to our healthcare providers to be major employers and economic engines in our communities. But as new hospitals begin to take shape in cities like Utica, New York, residents aren’t just eager to add downtown jobs after decades of decline… they also want to see added vibrancy and and activity on the street level as a result of their presence.

Let me start by dismissing my favorite misconception, the “more downtown jobs means more traffic for local businesses” argument. The truth is, increased downtown traffic alone does not, on its own, activate the surrounding environment. To simply say “more downtown jobs means more revenue for our local establishments” is oversimplifying an insanely complex set of variables. Whether or not people will leave one building and subsequently spend money in another is not easily predictable or quantifiable. Proponents, however, love to simplify this equation and sell the general population on the promises of increased activity and activation of the neighborhood in question.

This is not to say that major healthcare centers are bad for an area. Hospitals can be much needed job producers and revenue generators. They can also garner investment funds in the surrounding area via new construction. But while these are welcomed additions to areas desperate for development and forward movement, they don’t necessarily equate to increased vibrancy and patronage of local establishments.

Hospitals aren’t typically neighborhood activators for two reasons. For one, employees often work long hours in high stress situations. After a long shift of taxing work, do you want to go out and have dinner at a farm-to-table eatery, or go home to sleep or be with family?

And if you’re not an employee at the hospital, you’re either a patient or a family member of a patient. When was the last time you said “it’s too bad about Dad’s heart, let’s go have a beer?”

Sure, hospitals tend to be hot spots for food trucks and food stands at lunch time.  Beyond that, the average hospital worker, visitor or patient is not typically in the position to financially enrich the surrounding area.  Rochester’s College Town project east of The University of Rochester Medical Center has struggled to fill storefronts since its inception several years ago. Adjacent to the Medical Center and the university campus, College Town’s difficulties are well documented despite the presence of a pairing that employs tens of thousands of Rochester residents. Furthermore, the surrounding area is not exactly vibrant with life or activity.

What there is a great deal of around The U of R Medical Center is traffic congestion. Traffic counts in the tens of thousands per day abound on area streets as the medical campus ushers in people from all over the region into their healthcare jobs. But again, this traffic volume does not necessarily equate to local business growth, neighborhood activity or street level vibrancy. In fact, the added traffic volume likely works to deter any real kind of street life or surrounding economic uptick.

Healthcare centers can be tremendous employment hubs for cities across our nation. They also have the potential to garner investment dollars. What they don’t do is activate streets, neighborhoods or local businesses to the level that proponents expect. Hospitals serve a purpose, to care for our community health and provide jobs for our citizens, not  activate local neighborhoods or communities.  When seeing the big picture in our cities, we have to remember that not all sources of employment and entertainment have the same (or any) ripple effect on the surrounding economy and environment.  Whether or not this happens must be researched with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism in order to reach a true understanding of how a new downtown entity will impact and change the neighborhood.