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Advocacy has Morris, Brooks-TLC sitting pretty

State Gov. Kathy Hochul shakes hands with Ken Morris, president and chief executive officer at Brooks-TLC after Monday’s announcement.

Ken Morris settled in three rows back from the make-shift stage on Monday afternoon in the Williams Center at the State University of New York at Fredonia. As union members and Brooks-TLC staff held signs calling for “Building a Better Brooks” and “Investing in Health Care” while surrounding state Gov. Kathy Hochul, the current hospital president and chief executive officer sat back and savored the moment.

An eight-year wait filled with a bit of anxiety and despair was over. Hochul’s visit to the campus along with her announcement made it official. There will be a new Brooks-TLC built off East Main Street in the village of Fredonia just to the west of the roundabout.

Imagine the chaos that would have come with another health facility closing between Dunkirk and Buffalo?

Though the county currently has two other locations, with Westfield Memorial Hospital and UPMC Chautauqua in Jamestown, care would have been compromised for a 70-mile radius that includes Dunkirk-Fredonia, southern Erie and western Cattaraugus counties.

Tri-County Hospital in Gowanda was heavily damaged during a Sunday night torrential rainfall in August 2009 that flooded a village. It never recovered.

Lakeshore Hospital, which was closely tied to Brooks when it became part of the Lake Erie Regional Health System of New York in 2007, was like so many other rural care institutions that had trouble making ends meet while recording annual losses. Though it survived a closure attempt in 2013 when it was under the umbrella of UPMC, no entity — not even the state Health Department — could stop the next one that occurred on Feb. 2, 2020.

Since Morris’ arrival to northern Chautauqua County from Texas in 2018 starting as the institution’s vice president, the future of Brooks-TLC has always been tenuous — especially during the limbo regarding a new state-of-the-art facility. Though $74 million had been set aside by New York state for the project a year before his arrival, that stash seemed like a buried treasure that came without a map.

Adding to the unreachable funds was a palpable dissension that continues to do harm in an unneighborly fashion. The plan to move Dunkirk’s hospital to rival Fredonia was insulting to proud city residents who insist repairs to the antiquated and oversized building would be more cost effective than taking on a whole new location.

Much like the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, former home of the Sabres, and the Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park for the Bills, every historic and nostalgic structure has a lifespan. In fact, the current location at 529 Central Ave. in Dunkirk could be considered a bit of a survivor.

Most top-notch and highly touted care operations, like the one to be constructed here hopefully within the next three years, are impressive structures that mirror how patients are treated and medicine is delivered in the 21st century. They do not have the look and feel of a drab 1960s.

Understanding the urgency for the build, Morris rose to the challenge as a community advocate and leader once he took the helm at Brooks-TLC in August 2022. Besides having constant contact with local and state elected officials, he also visited with groups, organizations and major businesses that had a vested interest in keeping care and a hospital local.

Almost as important, Morris did something that was sorely missing within the building during a carousel of leadership over a decade. He reconnected with the employees, informing them on a regular basis with updates on the process while taking questions during town hall meetings.

“(The transparency) meant so much,” said Carrie Fearman, a Brooks-TLC nurse. “We weren’t left in the dark, so we were all part of a team. I feel like this is the first time I’ve ever been so included.”

Fearman was not alone. Staff members throughout the organization embraced the sessions that allowed them to become greater advocates for the new structure. It boosted morale while empowering them with information they could share with family, neighbors and other residents.

Those sentiments were vital to turning the tide on this important issue — in this region and across the state. Hochul was absolutely correct in noting the importance of the hospital in the county’s future. “Momentum is building, but a lot of it was resting on this project happening,” she said.

More work remains in expediting the build. Morris through the assistance of a growing partnership with Kaleida Health will definitely be at the center of it.

But earlier this week at the governor’s major announcement at SUNY, Morris was comfortable with the role of being a part of the audience. He knew he didn’t have to say a word.

His actions and leadership during the last 17 months have said it all.

John D’Agostino is the editor of The Post-Journal, OBSERVER and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.

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