Will Seton Touch Down at Mueller?

The old airport may become home to a new Children's Hospital.

Will Seton Touch Down at Mueller?

The city and Seton Healthcare Network both agree that the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, closed since 1999, would be an ideal spot for a new Children's Hospital. But can the city make that happen without losing its shirt?

The two sides are already headed down divergent paths to get to Mueller from where they are now. City Manager Toby Futrell envisions a public-private partnership, similar to what the city fashioned with Computer Sciences Corp. to develop city-owned land in the Warehouse District. But Seton President and CEO Charles Barnett prefers the idea of Seton purchasing from the city a portion of the 711-acre Mueller site and building the hospital with private funds.

These differing views will set the stage for a brand-new round of talks in the ongoing custody battle over Children's Hospital. The two sides held their first meeting this week.

Seton has leased and operated the city-owned Children's and Brackenridge Hospital since 1995. It's been a rocky marriage from the start, but the relationship went completely haywire last summer when Seton, out of the clear blue, announced that it was acquiring land at I-35 and Parmer Lane to build a new privately owned pediatrics hospital.

Since then, the two sides have been squaring off over how Seton intends to honor its lease obligations at Brackenridge, which houses the region's trauma center and serves as the main provider of indigent health care. City officials were doubly antsy over Seton's ability to provide trauma care and other services at the existing Children's Hospital while duplicating those efforts at a new facility 10 miles away.

Futrell said she's continued to press Seton to consider other sites in Central Austin, even after the nonprofit closed on the North Austin property. "The city is willing to consider almost anything to not have this relationship deteriorate over this issue. We have talked repeatedly about it," she said, holding up as examples the land options that exist under the city's condemnation powers, or the collaborative land opportunities available through the University of Texas. But Seton wouldn't budge, Futrell said.

However, pediatric physicians who practice at Children's have raised concerns about the wisdom of building a new hospital so far north of the city's center. To emphasize their point, some doctors sarcastically referred to the new location as "Pflugerville," or "Pflugerville North." Those concerns took on more urgency after a Jan. 13 meeting between Children's physicians and Travis Co. Probate Judge Guy Herman, a leader in the effort to establish a countywide hospital district. Herman is strongly opposed to Seton taking Children's Hospital out of the public domain. At the meeting, Herman handed the doctors a copy of the city's lease agreement with Seton, along with a list of goals for the proposed hospital district -- a tax-funded health care system that is intended to include the highly profitable Children's in the financial equation.

"It was clear they appreciated a fresh, or a different, perspective on matters," Herman said. The doctors looked over the lease and, according to the judge, realized the logistical nightmare involved in trying to meet their health care obligations at both the Brack campus and the North Austin site. "They gave me the clear impression that they could not accomplish all of those duties at Brackenridge and Parmer," said Herman.

The doctors' concerns, plus a nudge from local developer/philanthropist Dick Rathgeber, led Barnett back to Mueller. Seton had initially rejected the airport site, fearing the property would not be available in time to meet the hospital's 30-month construction time line for a 2007 completion. Over a recent lunch with Rathgeber, Barnett learned that the developer was considering establishing a "children's village" that would include a Ronald McDonald House and similar organizations for children and their families.

Rathgeber had been part of a team of local real-estate pros that competed, unsuccessfully, to be the master developer who would implement the city's six-years-in-the-making Mueller-redevelopment plan. After talking to Rathgeber, Barnett had some "very preliminary discussions" with the city and the winning development team, San Francisco-based Catellus Development Corp.

Jim Walker, chair of the city's RMMA Redevelopment Advisory Commission and leader of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, says both groups are open to most any type of use for the site, with the exception of heavy industry. "Once the idea starts gaining traction, or [if] the proposed use would require amendments to the master plan, then we would like an opportunity to sit at the table," he said.

The master plan calls for 5 million square feet of office space, much of it concentrated on the north side of the old airport, including the northwest corner at 51st and I-35. Futrell sees that area as the likeliest location for the new hospital and Rathgeber's village. Catellus had initially floated a proposal to convert that site into a regional retail center that would generate cash flow for Mueller redevelopment, but is now reconsidering.

Right now, there's a lot of enthusiasm about the prospect of a new Children's Hospital at Mueller, although that spirit carries a caveat of public ownership, or partial ownership at the very least. "From the city's point of view, we want Children's to remain central and public," Futrell said.

Other health care observers say they like the Mueller idea, but they're less forgiving of Seton for yanking Children's out of the plans for a public hospital district. "I don't trust them," said one. "What they did was a premeditated act." There's also some talk about what would happen if Seton again dismisses the Mueller site and moves forward on a North Austin site. Some of that chatter concerns the possibility of a bond referendum for a publicly owned children's hospital, separate from Seton, at Mueller. The idea is that putting such bonds on the same ballot with a hospital district (presumably in November) would help sell voters on the latter. But that's just talk for now.

From a public relations standpoint, Barnett recognizes that the Mueller move could help Seton clean up the mess made by its sloppy handling of Children's. "We didn't do as good a job as we should have," Barnett said, adding that, given the opportunity to rewrite that chapter in Seton's history, "We would communicate it in a different way. Seton needs to do a better job of telling our story."

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