Planned Parenthood "Tri-chairs" at Groundbreaking Ceremony

With director Joe Sammons.

Since 1979 the Planned Parenthood health center in Ithaca has called a 5,000-square-foot, three-story Victorian house on West State/MLK Street home. By this time next year, Planned Parenthood’s Ithaca location will look much different.

That’s because Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes has undertaken a major capital campaign to create three new health centers—in Ithaca, Hornell and Corning—with its major investment being put into Ithaca. The current location now serves about twice as many patients as it was designed to, with the demand surpassing the space available at the site.

That will change by springtime, when PPSFL hopes to open its new facility that will triple the space of the current center.

“In the history of our agency, we’ve never built a building,” said Joe Sammons, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. “We’ve moved into a space, shared spaces with other organizations, but this is a first for us.”

The new building, located on the 600-block of West Seneca Street, is a 16,000 square-foot two-story environmentally sound, sustainable, green facility. 

“There is a geothermal heating system,” said Sammons, “and we’re doing as much local sourcing as we possibly can. It’s in the contract.

“They don’t make a lot of steel around here, but anything we can we are sourcing locally,” he added.

It will have dedicated clinical space with private waiting spaces and check-in areas, double the capacity with seven exam rooms, include a surgical abortion suite with a dedicated waiting room and semi-private recovery room, and it will have off-street parking for increased safety.

“The entire first floor will be our health center,” said Sammons. “Operations will basically double our capacity to serve patients.”

In the second-floor of the building, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes staff will have their offices. There will be a suite of offices for education staff, space for youth groups, and a conference room for education programs, and board and community meetings. 

“Really, three things will be going on there,” said Sammons of the second floor. “Our big goal is to integrate the education and community programs, so our whole education team will be locating on the second floor.

“There will be plenty of space for youth groups and trainings,” he added. “Our boardroom is where we’ll have our meetings, but our intention is to work with the Human Services Coalition to work with other organizations that need meeting spaces. All the non-profits, of which we are one, know that space is the final frontier in Ithaca, and we’re going to have a good-sized space that will be available.”

The administrative offices in the building will allow the PPSFL senior management team to work in one place for the first time since the merger.

“Today, we have staff spread out over three locations we’re renting,” Sammons said. “We’re going to consolidate all of that space and reduce overhead costs by having everybody working in the same spot.

“It’s not only cost effective to do it this way, but teams work better when they’re in the same building,” he added. “We want to make it as productive as we can, but also to communicate and problem solve better. That was part of the mindset when we drew the plan up—we wanted to create a more cohesive atmosphere to work together.”

Work won’t be done just inside the facility, it will take place outside as well.

“We want the building to look like a professional, welcoming health center that fits in with the unique character of Ithaca,” Sammons said. “There will be a lot of landscaping around the building, we hope it will be four seasons landscaping, that we think will make the building look nicer for the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood is a changing one: GreenStar Natural Foods Market has expanded with its acquisition of a former tile store in recent years, and Alternatives Federal Credit Union is creating more parking across the street from its West Seneca Street location. The West End is seeing growth and revitalization, and Sammons expects the new Planning Parenthood facility to add to that positive change.

“We recognize the West End is a vibrant, growing part of Ithaca,” he said. “A lot of construction is going on in Ithaca right now and we’re honored to be a part of it, helping to build the kind of community that reflects our values. We want to be a great neighbor and we are grateful for the whole community’s support.”

Planned Parenthood was looking for a location downtown, as it wanted to remain part of the heart of the city. Its current location is 314 West State/MLK St.

“We wanted to be downtown,” Sammons said. “We also wanted to be accessible to patients.”

Those two factors made the West End the right location for the facility.

“Downtown Ithaca itself is becoming increasingly compressed and the West End location seemed like an excellent neighborhood,” Sammons said. “People can get to it with mass transit, and there is space for off-street parking for patients. There’s also room for us to expand.

“GreenStar is expanding,” he said, “Alternatives is right across the street and the Ithaca Free Clinic is at the other end of the block. There are a lot of progressive, community-based organizations we’ll be neighbors with.”

There is some housing in the area, both single- and double-family homes, as well as a new apartment complex that was just built on West Seneca on the same side of the street as the new Planned Parenthood facility.

“There is some residential there, but there are a number of community-based organizations committed to Ithaca,” Sammons said. “We’re very pleased to be part of that building and we think the building will honor that.

“We’re not building on the cheap, we want to make sure the building fits in with the neighborhood,” he added. “It’s exciting to see it go up.”

All told, PPSFL is making about an $8 million investment to develop the three health centers in Ithaca, Hornell and Corning. Of that $8 million, the Ithaca building project is estimated to cost $6.12 million. 

“It’s an expensive project, with a little over $6 million for this particular health center,” said Sammons. “There are three projects we’re doing as part of our capital campaign: The Hornell project has been completed and its doors are open, and once we finish the Ithaca building, we have a project in Corning.

“We’re going to spend over $8 million to double the capacity of the agency to integrate more of the services we provide in our health centers,” Sammons said.

Sammons said fund-raising efforts have been underway for some time, but the public capital campaign just launched in mid-October.

“We’ve raised more than $4 million toward this (Ithaca) project,” he said. “We’ve finished the quiet phase of the campaign and started the public phase.”

The fund-raising effort has been successful—even though it hasn’t really gotten into the swing of the public financial appeal—with $4.7 million of the Ithaca project cost already raised.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of support for this project and we have been overwhelmed by the support of this community and our families,” Sammons said. “To start the public launch with 85 percent of the goal already raised is very promising.

“This is a big fund-raising goal for us; this agency has never raised more than $1 million in a given campaign,” he added. “Every dollar we raised helps us reduce our long-term debt and the less debt we have the more services we can provide, which is a good thing for the agency.”

Once the new facility is complete and Planned Parenthood operations have moved into the West Seneca Street site, the old building will be sold, which will help pay some of the cost of the new construction.

“We’ll be pursuing grants and other funding opportunities as well,” Sammons said, “but the lion’s share of the resources are from this capital campaign.”

The new building was designed by Grace Chiang (now of Chiang O’Brien Architects, formerly of HOLT Architects).

The project broke ground in June, after going through a full city approval process that started about a year ago. Sammons said there was a lot of time spent with on-site preparation and soil treatment.

“That part of Ithaca is built on a marsh, and we wanted to make sure our building was going to stand the test of time by making sure the foundation is strong,” he said. “It’s a significant investment.”

The walls have just gone up and the roof is on the new building.

“The plan is to have the building enclosed by early December,” Sammons said. “We’re hoping to be complete and in the building sometime next spring; in the month of May is the goal.”

As to whether there is enough demand to fill the facility’s capacity, Sammons said while it may not happen immediately, past experience has shown that patient growth will steadily take place.

“We won’t double visits right away, that’s for sure, but we have reason to believe that visits will increase substantially,” he said. “In places we have created professional, welcoming health centers—Hornell being the most recent example, where we renovated a space—every time, the number of visits have gone up by double digits each year.

“We know if we build it, people will come,” Sammons added. 

Health care reform will also lead to increased visits, he said.

“Obamacare is not the be-all end-all, but it puts more insurance cards in people’s hands,” Sammons said. “In Ithaca, the only place you can go without insurance care is the (Ithaca) Free Clinic, Planned Parenthood and the hospital. That’s one reason we drove to expand capacity by 2014, when the law goes into effect.”

With an increased focus on health care nationwide, more women may think about their health needs.

“Studies across the country show that about half the women who need reproductive health care are getting it,” Sammons said. “When women have to choose between getting reproductive health care and feeding their kids, they’re choosing to feed their kids. So, there’s still about half the community that should be getting reproductive health care that aren’t.

“I should say not just reproductive, but sexual health. Men are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population coming to Planned Parenthood for STI testing and well-men visits. About five percent of our patients are men; our STI testing and STD treatment programs are very confidential,” he added. “The one name out there that people trust the most with sexual health is Planned Parenthood. People know they can get compassionate care here that is not dependent on the insurance card you have.” 

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