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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

As Springfield Hospital Struggles, Town Also Works To Reinvent Itself

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce holds a monthly mixer to bring business owners and employees together. The hospital is one of the town's largest employers.

The town of Springfield has struggled with declining jobs and population loss since long before news broke that one of its largest employers, the local hospital, is losing money. If Springfield Hospital closes, it would be a blow to a community that’s been trying to reinvent itself.

Josh Dufresne wants to see Springfield Hospital survive. He's worked there for 14 years, but can trace his ties back even further.

“I was born here in 1977 in Springfield, Vermont, in this hospital,” Dufresne said recently. “Actually maybe in this office that we’re sitting in right now, which is a little weird.”

Dufresne was named acting CEO of Springfield Medical Care Systems when the former CEO resigned following news that the hospital lost $14 million over the past two years.

Dufresne remembers when Springfield was a bustling center for making precision machine parts that were sold all over the world. The hospital rode that wave through two World Wars and then the booming '50s and '60s.

But most of the machine shops are now closed, and Dufresne said the hospital can’t survive by doing business as usual.

“Part of it is the realization that [the] Springfield area has changed. It’s not what it once was,” Dufresne said. “And it’s going to force us to change as a health care organization to stay alive.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Josh Dufresne, acting CEO of Springfield Medical Care Systems, grew up in Springfield. He said the hospital needs to change its way of doing business as the population and economic health of Springfield changes.

From 2006 to 2016, Springfield Hospital saw its number of inpatient discharges decline by more than 20 percent. Meanwhile about 700 people work at Springfield Hospital, making the hospital one of the largest employers in town.

And so they are intertwined: Springfield’s economy needs the hospital, and the hospital needs a vibrant Springfield.

But downtown Springfield is in rough shape. When you drive in you go by lines of abandoned factories, and there are plenty of empty stores fronting rundown buildings along Main Street.

Springfield Hospital can take on all of the cost-saving measures it wants, but if the town doesn’t bring in more young families it might all be for naught.

The exterior of an abandoned building on a street in Springfield, Vt.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Springfield is using town money and grants to try to clean up some of the abandoned buildings around town.

Each month, the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce holds a mixer to bring business owners and employees together. The gathering in March was held at Flying Crow Coffee, Springfield’s newest downtown retail establishment.

Ben Bolaski came out for the chamber mixer. He said Springfield is behind the efforts to save the hospital.

“I think the people in Springfield are really resilient,” Bolaski said. “And we’re a pretty hearty bunch after what we’ve been through in the past. And I think the whole community is really rallying around kind of the efforts at the hospital right now to keep things moving forward, and make sure that, you know, it doesn’t come to the worst.”

Bolaski, 29, is exactly the kind of person Springfield officials want to attract. He grew up here, moved away and then returned. Bolaski works in the solar industry, and he just bought a house in town.

He said Springfield’s been through a lot, and it’s easy to see all of this bad news about the hospital as just the latest challenge. But Bolaski said younger folks like him are ready to change the narrative.

“I think for a while people were, you know, really devastated by all the gear shapers and the shops closing in Springfield. And I think it took a while for the town to kind of get over the fact that we were no longer kind of the economic powerhouse that we once were,” said Bolaski. “And so now, you know, I think there’s this renewal here downtown.”

"I think the people in Springfield are really resilient. ... And I think the whole community is really rallying around kind of the efforts at the hospital right now to keep things moving forward." — Ben Bolaski, Springfield resident

The town has a long list of development projects in the queue, though it’s still not clear if the money will come through for all of it.

There’s a downtown park and affordable housing project in the works, as well as some ambitious plans for a high-tech business incubator.

Laurentiu Traineanu owns a few buildings downtown and is on the steering committee that’s trying to get some of these projects off the ground. Traineanu said he has faith that if the projects succeed and young families move to town, the hospital will feed off that success.

“I’m sure the economic development will help them. I mean the health system, the Springfield Hospital, was built on the shoulders of the machine tool industry in Springfield,” Traineanu said. “Hopefully if we bring new businesses and new development in downtown, people do need a hospital. And so the more young people we can retain in this area, the better the hospital is going to do.”

Springfield Hospital laid off 27 people recently as part of its cost-cutting measures, and the decision last week to close the hospital’s childbirth center was seen as a blow to bringing in young families.

But up on the hill where the hospital sits, administrators are working on ways to keep the doors open. At the same time, the business community downtown will continue pushing forward.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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