A tale of two clinics: VHCD and Sea Mar stake their plans to build

On Sept. 21, Vashon Health Care District closed on a 2.3-acre property that healthcare advocates had long worked to acquire as a site for a community-owned health care clinic. The same day, Sea Mar Community Health Centers announced its intention, for now, to renovate the Spinnaker Building into a primary health care clinic, while it also builds a new clinic on the property.

Last week, Vashon Health Care District (VHCD) closed on a long-planned purchase of 2.3 acres of land — a site on which it intends to build a new primary health care clinic.

The acreage, located on Vashon Highway just south of Kathy’s Corner garden center, is a long stretch of grassy land that early advocates for the formation of VHCD brokered to secure years ago — calling it an ideal spot on which to build a community-owned health care clinic. (See editorial and commentary, page 6.)

VHCD purchased the property for the below market value of $570,000, from B&B Northwest Properties, an entity controlled by longtime islanders Matt Bergman and Kimberly Bergman.

Fundraising to build the new clinic could take years, but according to Tom Langland, president of the board of VHCD commissioners, VHCD is determined to build a community-owned asset on the site, which, he added, was the seller’s express intent.

VHCD superintendent Eric Jenson also said he was confident that the land is a prime location for a new clinic, but that the timing and financing of the project are still uncertain.

“We never intended to build immediately after the sale closed,” he said.

However, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, the Seattle-based nonprofit organization which VHCD has contracted since late 2020 to operate Vashon’s aging Sunrise Ridge clinic, has other, more immediate plans.

After a month of conflicting and cascading announcements about its continued operations on Vashon, Sea Mar said last week that it, too, had found its own site for a new clinic in downtown Vashon.

In an email on Sept. 21 — the same day that VHCD closed on its property — Sea Mar executive vice president Mary Bartolo told The Beachcomber that Sea Mar had purchased the Spinnaker Building, a two-story office building located at 17710 100th Ave. SW, directly across the street from the IGA shopping center complex.

On this site, according to Bartolo, Sea Mar would be able to build its own 11,000 to 12,000 square foot primary health care clinic.

Asked by The Beachcomber if it was possible that Sea Mar might also operate out of the Spinnaker Building in the near future, Bartolo said yes — given that Sea Mar’s departure from the Sunrise Ridge Clinic was now likely to take place as of June 30, 2023.

“…Our intent is to remodel the facility we are purchasing to accommodate our needs so we can continue to provide primary care to our patients without interruption to their services,” she said. “We will build the new clinic on the [parking lot] side of the property so operations can continue during construction.”

Asked where patients and staff would park if construction was taking place on one side of the property while a clinic operated on the other, Bartolo outlined a third scenario.

“We are currently working on the parking issue and are looking for nearby space to lease,” she said. “If we are unable to obtain adequate space for parking, we may have to remain in the remodeled, existing building until we do find adequate parking, or find another parcel of land to build.”

Approximately 1752 of the 7,300 square foot building, according to floor plans shown on a description of the property at spinnakerbuilding.com, are on the second floor of the building, which does not currently have an elevator.

The building’s parking lot has 26 parking spaces — in contrast to Sea Mar’s present location at Sunrise Ridge, which has approximately 80 spots including overflow parking in a lower lot.

VHCD details recent negotiations with Sea Mar

In interviews, and at its board meeting held on Sept. 21, VHCD commissioners and its superintendent, Eric Jenson, said that they had learned many of Sea Mar’s plans, in recent weeks, through Sea Mar’s communications with The Beachcomber.

These surprises gleaned through the press included Sea Mar’s plans to purchase the Spinnaker Building, as well as Bartolo’s statement to The Beachcomber on Sept. 21 that VHCD’s request for mediation in their dispute was not “a reasonable avenue at this point.”

At the VHCD board meeting, the board voted to again formally ask for mediation — a request carried out by VHCD Superintendent Eric Jenson, who specified that if VHCD did not hear back from Sea Mar by Sept. 30, it would assume Sea Mar’s refusal.

As of Sept. 26, Bartolo indicated — again to The Beachcomber — that Sea Mar might consider a process of mediation.

“As for the request to go to mediation, we are not completely closing the door to that suggestion,” Bartolo said. “We are interested in having the two parties continue discussions and to fully understand what the remaining issues are prior to spending any additional money on mediation.”

A central issue at play is the date of Sea Mar’s departure from Sunrise Ridge — which it originally stated as Dec. 31, in its Aug. 26 letter of termination to VHCD.

“Prior to Sea Mar’s announcement about their purchase of land, we did in fact offer to extend the sublease through June 30 in conjunction with [an] extension of the termination date of the services agreement,” Jensen said, in an interview. “We are willing to discuss the sublease and other topics with them as part of a mediation.”

However, Jensen said, VHCD is also proceeding with its search for a new provider for the clinic.

“The District began to look for a new provider to operate the clinic at Sunrise Ridge shortly after receiving Sea Mar’s notice of termination,” Jensen said. “Sea Mar’s statements about staying on Vashon and operating independent of the District, largely made through the media, but also in recent e-mails, don’t change the District’s goal of assuring that Vashon has a long-term primary care solution, including a new provider, if necessary.”

Jensen added that Sea Mar’s land purchase and stated intentions to stay on Vashon had complicated VHCD’s exploration of provider options, but didn’t necessarily rule them out.

“We have, in fact, been having conversations with several potential providers,” he said.

Commissioner Alan Aman also said that VHCD’s aim to build on its newly acquired site had not changed, despite Sea Mar’s recent actions.

“Our vision for a new clinic remains to secure the best possible site, finance its construction, and deliver a design that meets the long-term needs and economics of the island,” Aman said.

Another commissioner, Eric Pryne, stated it differently.

“I think Sea Mar would agree that the property we recently acquired is a better clinic site,” he said. “It is unfortunate that they have rejected our efforts to work collaboratively.”

Spinnaker Building — a storied island property

Property records show that the site of Sea Mar’s new proposed clinic — a storied property on Vashon — is currently owned by Spinnaker Building LLC, an entity controlled by Scott Shapiro, who declined comment for this article.

But in an email to The Beachcomber in 2019, Shapiro detailed the building’s use at that time as a co-working space, and also attached a flyer noting the building was also for sale, for a price of $1,475,000.

Bartolo, of Sea Mar, said that Sea Mar was looking at closing on the property no later than the end of October, but she too, declined to discuss the terms of the purchase agreement until after the sale had closed.

Spinnaker Building LLC purchased the building in 2008 from Spinnaker Associates, Inc. — an entity associated with the late islander Wayne Holt, who founded a software company, Software Research Northwest, which began to operate in the building in the late 1980s. (See Holt’s obituary on page 13.)

The inclusion of “Spinnaker” in the names of recent companies that have owned the building was a throwback to its original use.

According to island historian Bruce Haulman, the building was built by islander Don Cunningham and his brothers in 1972, as a cocktail bar and restaurant, called The Spinnaker — a destination watering hole and eatery still fondly remembered by many long-time islanders.

Correction: This article, in both a previous online version and The Beachcomber’s Sept. 29 print edition, mistakenly said that Spinnaker Building was built in 1972 by islander Don Cunningham and his sons. Cunningham built the building with his brothers, not his sons. We regret the error.