The Milford Wellness Center is expected to bring about 300 new jobs to the area

It’s out with the old and in with the new – literally -- as Bayhealth vacates its Milford campus and a new client, Nationwide Healthcare Services, takes over the 22-acre complex on West Clarke Avenue.

The old building will be renovated and converted into an expansive rehabilitation and senior healthcare complex dubbed the Milford Wellness Village, newly-appointed General Manager Daphne Bumbrey said.

Nationwide is expected to make at least $20 million in capital investments in the new center, ultimately creating about 300 new, permanent jobs. There also will be several temporary construction jobs.

Bumbrey, who is the former executive director of the Milford Senior Center, was named to the position in December 2018. The Wellness Village will be Nationwide’s first excursion into the healthcare business in southern Delaware; the New Jersey-based company has two healthcare and rehabilitation service facilities in Wilmington and Hockessin as well as four more in Pennsylvania.

No white elephant

Almost as soon as Bayhealth announced it would be leaving the current hospital, Milford city officials and area residents started worrying about the building becoming a decaying and neglected white elephant in the middle of the city.

However, as Bayhealth’s plans for a new hospital south of the Milford jelled in 2014, it pledged to find a buyer for the old building. Officials at Nationwide’s corporate offices learned Bayhealth would be leaving downtown Milford as its new Sussex Campus was opened, and they started work on acquiring the building.

“The need was brought to Nationwide through members of the community,” Bumbrey said. “They had a conversation with Bayhealth and it was brought to their attention that the building would be vacant soon, so they thought it would be a good idea to have it at this location.”

What followed were meetings between Nationwide, people living near the hospital and Milford city government.

“They told us what they were looking for,” she said. “We had the idea for a wellness village, which is a little different from our other locations throughout Delaware. It’s going to encompass more than just a skilled nursing facility.”

Bayhealth and Nationwide reached an agreement in March 2017 and the project to provide a 150-bed nursing facility was certified later that year by Delaware’s Health Resources Board. In October 2018, Milford’s city council approved a zoning change that also would allow space in the complex to be leased to additional tenants. The Wellness Village will take up about 12 of the 22 acres; the remaining 10 acres will be available for those other businesses.

One, Kidz Ink, already has signed an agreement to open an early child care and learning center on the grounds.

A waiting list

The core of the former hospital building is more than 80 years old, having been dedicated as a 100-bed facility on April 9, 1938. The hospital was significantly expanded over the decades, including construction of a cancer center, Milford’s first, in 2002.

Rehabilitation work for the Wellness Center will begin as soon as Bayhealth has completely moved out of the building and will take place over several months, Bumbrey said.

“We have to wait for Bayhealth to tell us when they’ll be out and we’ll start shortly after that,” she said.

“The renovations will happen step-by-step,” Bumbrey added. “We will have the new daycare center, and that will be one of the first things to start.”

Other renovations will take place as new tenants come into the building, she said.

Although approved for a 150-bed skilled nursing center, building up to that number will be a gradual process, she said.

They’ve already got a waiting list, Bumbrey added.

“Nationwide has always had a mission to give the best level of care to all the residents,” Bumbrey said. “They want to make sure they meet the spiritual and emotional needs and a compassionate environment. They care and they want to make sure they provide the best care possible.”

There also are plans for a senior independent living center, which eventually will require the construction of a new building, she said.