Turnaround in West Baltimore

September 01, 1992

Bon Secours Hospital had just lost $2.5 million and was $5 million in debt four years ago when it began a reappraisal of its role and mission in West Baltimore. The options ranged from closing down the aging campus at Baltimore and Pulaski streets to pushing ahead and expanding in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Bon Secours opted for the latter course and is now in the midst of a $24 million rejuvenation drive. An expanded emergency room and a new 90,000 square-foot building housing operating rooms and other care facilities are slated for completion by 1994. "It's kind of a renaissance project in West Baltimore," says James O. Dague, the hospital's chief executive officer.

Bon Secours has been an important West Baltimore institution since 1881 when the Sisters of Bon Secours came to the city from France at the invitation of the archdiocese of Baltimore and founded an acute-care hospital. Today, the hospital campus is in the middle of an area where 70 percent of the population is classified as impoverished.

Primary and preventive health-care services are so rare in this area that 55 percent of admissions come through the emergency room, which is so congested that ambulances do not even try to stop there one-third of the time. Nearly 90 percent of the patients pay through Medicare or Medicaid, the rest do not pay at all. Clearly, there is a crying need for services provided by Bon Secours.

Many of the residential streets around Bon Secours -- just one mile west of the downtown area -- are pockmarked with vacant and boarded-up houses. Drugs, prostitution and violent crimes are a constant headache. Even though much of the area's housing stock is solid -- and some homes in the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Baltimore Street are of interesting architecture -- the rough streets deter newcomers from moving in.

As Bon Secours expands, it hopes to spur community development programs. Among ideas under consideration is the acquisition of some of the vacant houses for homeownership programs and for rental housing for hospital employees. Such a leadership role is truly welcome. It carries a promise of comprehensive community healing.

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