FMC’s future: Flagstaff community members organizing to put campus plans on the ballot

Abigail Kessler

More than two years after Northern Arizona Healthcare (NAH) first announced its plans for a new Flagstaff Medical Center (FMC) and about nine months past the initial timeline set for groundbreaking, the city has approved the specific plan and zoning map amendments for phase one of the hospital’s move to a new location.The plans have developed in the years since a new campus near Ft. Tuthill County Park was announced in April 2021, though the overall concept of a hospital and ambulatory care center (ACC) surrounded by a larger health and wellness village has remained consistent, as has community skepticism about the proposal.The city’s June 6 approval of the phase one specific plan and zoning map amendments means NAH can move forward with planning and design for its new hospital and ACC. The healthcare organization’s leadership has been doing just that; a preliminary plat was set to be reviewed by Flagstaff City Council at Tuesday’s meeting and, if all goes according to plan, they hope to begin working on the new site in Feb. 2024.

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Local residents and organizations with unanswered questions and concerns about the project have been organizing since the council’s approval, gathering signatures in the hope of placing a referendum on the ballot. If they have slightly over 2,600 by July 6, the question will be put to a vote for Flagstaff residents.Here’s a closer look at two of FMC’s potential futures as the project moves into its next stage of development.Referendum petitionFlagstaff community members and organization have been gathering signatures on a petition over the past two weeks with the hope of calling a referendum on an ordinance connected to the plans to move FMC to a new location.The referendum petition questions city ordinance 2023-11, which is the rezoning unanimously adopted by the council at its June 6 meeting (though vice mayor Austin Aslan was absent). It amends Flagstaff’s zoning map by rezoning 93.98 acres of the NAH property next to Ft. Tuthill County Park for uses related to the hospital.With this ordinance, the property moved from a mix of rural residential (40.47 acres) and estate residential (57.92 acres) to highway commercial (63.18 acres) and public facilities (35.21) to accommodate phase one of construction, primarily the new hospital and ACC.According to Friends of Flagstaff’s Future (F3) executive director Michele James, each ordinance challenged would require a separate petition to be put on the ballot, so organizers focused on the rezoning as it includes some of their biggest questions with the campus.“This is a big decision that’s going to affect our city in many, many ways,” she said. “Everything from what’s happening on the existing campus to the amount of traffic to the increase in vehicle miles traveled is predicted to happen for people driving to the new location, how that overlaps with the carbon neutrality plan. …It’s a big development, period, but it’s also very big in terms of magnitude and we think a decision of this magnitude ought to be at the hands of the voting public.”F3 has been helping gather signatures to support the petition, an effort that is being led by a new political action committee called Flagstaff Community First. The group has until July 6 to gather just over 2,600 valid signatures on the petition, which will then need to be certified, so they are trying to collect as many as possible.“We believe NAH and their private development partners’ proposal is of such magnitude that the citizens of Flagstaff should be able to vote on it, based on as much information as possible,” FCF’s website said. “It is one of the largest development projects in the city’s history and will impact the city in many significant ways. …This decision is too important to not be given to the voters.”If the current efforts are successful, this question will be put to the public on a ballot in November; the petition’s success by itself does not automatically mean overturning the council’s decision.Referendums are one of two powers given to the people in part one of Article IV of the Arizona constitution. Section eight outlines the process for more local matters, including at the city level. It specifies that 10% of electors can propose a referendum on legislation enacted — in this case, by the City of Flagstaff.NAH leaders have said they would not be able to move forward with their campus plans without city approval on the rezoning. But with the June 6 council meeting, they have it, and are moving forward with their plans. Approval of a preliminary plat was on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting, for example.”We understand the desire for the public vote,” said Steve Eiss, NAH’s vice president of construction and real estate development. “I think what we want to make sure is that the folks that are talking about the hospital publicly are accurately depicting the project. A lot of the talking points we hear out in the community and sometimes ones we see on social media, we have directly refuted with information during our meetings.”He said these misconceptions included that the construction would cost taxpayers in infrastructure improvements. NAH is also directing people to a page on its website about the new campus.”… We’re confident that the residents of our region understand the value of a level one trauma center,” Eiss added. “…We just want to make sure that residents understand the facts, they understand that these services we plan on providing to the community are services for the entire region, and we want to make sure we understand we’re planning a project that is suited to serve the next generation of northern Arizonans, including those within the city of Flagstaff.”Eiss did not say what NAH specifically planned to do should a vote on the referendum go against the council decision, though he said “if ultimately our zoning is overturned, we would have to readdress what we would need to meet our community’s healthcare needs.”“…I think we’ll have to reconvene when that happens,” he said. “Right now, we’re holding steady on our plans because we feel they’re the appropriate plans for the community and the region and hopeful that we will give the information that the community desires through this process to show that.”Tuesday’s council meeting also included preparations for calling a special election on Nov. 7, which includes several city charter amendments and potentially the referendum, should it receive enough signatures.“We will not know if the referendum will qualify for placement on the ballot within a timeframe sufficient to provide proper notice and solicitation for pro/con statements from the public,” the agenda noted. “As such, we are including the referendum in this resolution, contingent upon the qualification of signatures.”The item also said if the petition is unsuccessful, the ballot will continue without the referendum question.Reasoning for the referendumFCF is aided in its efforts by several Flagstaff residents and organizations, including FMC certificate holders, former councilmembers and a local doctor. Many of these have previously expressed concerns with the plan to move FMC and, eventually, create a larger health and wellness village around it.Like many involved in the efforts to put the referendum on the ballot, James primarily focused on her ongoing questions and concerns about the plan to move the hospital more generally when discussing the need for a referendum.“The referendum is exactly what we’re for,” she said of F3, mentioning election forums the organization held last year. “We think the public should have a say in what happens in elections. In this case, because there’s so many unanswered questions, we think the public should have a chance to decide.”While James said F3 isn’t against the hospital, she said there were still several unanswered questions about its impact on the community she’d like to see addressed before moving forward — whether a renovation at the current site is possible and how the current campus will be used after the move, for example. The organization is also asking for a community impact study to show all the ways moving the hospital to Ft. Tuthill could affect Flagstaff and its medical care.She has commented about these concerns at almost every meeting on the topic over the past year, and F3’s website has a page further detailing its response to the project. F3 had previously considered putting together a referendum effort itself, but decided not to because of a lack of capacity. When it heard about this effort, it decided to assist, she said.“We believe Flagstaff and northern Arizona residents deserve high-quality healthcare. Absolutely,” she said. “We just have some questions we’d like to have answered that would be used to make a better decision or to make a more full and complete decision.“…We would like transparency,” she added. “I think the public deserves transparency and answers to the questions that a lot of people have and the referendum appears to be the only way to potentially get those answers.”More about the referendum efforts, including places to sign the petition, can be found at 


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