One summer morning in 2019, I watched as workers in Gaylord renovated an old school building for an ambitious project: the creation of a private osteopathic medical school in the middle of Minnesota farm country.
Earlier that year, during a health care summit at Minnesota State University-Mankato, a panel had reviewed the school’s curriculum and introduced its would-be dean. Plans were to open in the fall of 2020 with an inaugural class of 75 students.
Two years later, those grand designs appear to have collapsed as the renovation project sits long-abandoned – a letdown for residents in this town of 2,300 who saw the prospect of economic renewal in the medical school.
The proposed school’s co-founder and leading advocate, Philip Keithahn, did not say the project had fallen through when asked for comment on its status, but civic leaders believe that it has. Moreover, Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, chosen to be the school’s dean, said in an email that the project has been disbanded.
While the city doesn’t own the building that was being renovated, officials believe they will eventually have to step in and have formed an ad-hoc committee to come up with ideas for how it might now be used.
“It’s safe to say that people are disappointed,” Mayor Dawn Kratzke said. “It really would have changed our community. We would have seen growth in ways that we wouldn’t have seen before.”
Rural osteopathic schools
Plans for the Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine began to come together several years ago while community leaders were considering the future of the old school, which had been left vacant after voters in the Sibley East Public Schools district voted to build a new elementary school.
While starting a medical school in a rural Minnesota town might seem like a reach, such schools are not unusual. In recent decades, several osteopathic medical schools have opened in small communities across the country, according to the American Osteopathic Association. (Osteopathic training is similar to that of traditional medicine while also emphasizing a holistic approach and strong physician-patient relationships). It was hoped that the school would produce physicians for rural Minnesota towns.
In an email exchange, Keithahn, a local banker, said he had no updates to share and would contact me if there has been a significant development. Kratzke provided MinnPost with documents, reviewed by city officials, that show the project defaulting on bonds sold to finance the renovation. The AOA, which considers accreditation for osteopathic colleges, told me it has not granted accreditation to any proposed osteopathic college in Minnesota.
The project was to include housing, attached to the renovated school, for 45 students. City officials also told me two years ago that they hoped that the school would propel the completion of two commercial projects: a Grandstay Hotel and an 80-unit apartment complex. The hotel project has been put on hold, though one of two planned apartment buildings has been constructed, according to city officials.
‘Too good to be true’
Scott Kuphal, a member of the City Council, said he was frustrated that the project’s organizers haven’t given civic leaders a thorough update on the project. He, too, had been cautiously optimistic that it would come to fruition. Now he’s moved on.
“There was some excitement for it, though a lot of people were also apprehensive about it, too, like, ‘This sounds too good to be true,’” he said. “Now the concern is about that building. It’s a big property. What do we do with it?”
Neither Kratzke nor Kuphal were sure to what extent the school has been renovated, though Kuphal said it was “half-worked on.” Some window openings are now boarded up. Kratzke said she hoped to get a tour of the building soon.
The ad-hoc committee has discussed several ideas for the building, Kratzke said, such as creating a job incubator like the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar or using it for education of some kind. Residents have offered some ideas on Facebook, too, including turning it into a recreational center. In addition, one lot where a house once stood is now empty, cleared for the highly anticipated project that apparently won’t come to be.
“Right now, the community’s biggest concern is that the building doesn’t deteriorate,” Kratzke said. “Gaylord is a small town, and we care about our buildings and our neighborhoods.”