Five years after Sault Area Hospital started making serious calls for a residential withdrawal management facility to help those battling mental health and addictions crises, the 20-bed Northway Wellness Centre was officially opened Thursday at 145 Old Garden River Rd.
“It’s beyond words what this means,” said Lisa Case, SAH clinical director of mental health and addictions, speaking to SooToday after a well-attended ribbon cutting ceremony and speeches by SAH officials and Sault MPP Ross Romano.
“Ultimately it’s better care for our community members who need it. I’m elated and I have my sleeves rolled up to get the work done.”
Case, a social worker with SAH since 2001, has been working on the residential withdrawal management facility project with SAH leadership and political leaders intensely over the last three years.
“It’s been the most meaningful work of my career,” Case said of the Northway project.
“As we started looking for a site, this site became available and we knew very quickly that this was the best possible site. We did a comprehensive site search and this checked all the boxes. It’s close to EMS, parking is all on one level and we had a property owner that was willing to work with us and be patient while we worked with our political partners to get the appropriate approvals,” Case said.
The cost of renovating the Northway Wellness Centre site - the former Sault Star building - came in at just under $20 million.
That funding was announced by Sault MPP Romano on behalf of the provincial government in May 2022.
SAH has a 20-year lease with DiTommaso Developments, the Northway building’s owner.
Year-to-year operational funding of $343,000, including payment of the lease, was announced by MPP Romano in May 2021.
Northway Wellness Centre will begin taking in clients Monday, transferring clients currently in Sault Area Hospital.
“We will know how many Monday morning. We have up to 13 clients in care at Sault Area Hospital and anyone that is appropriate will transfer over to us,” Case said.
Northway is not the typical 30-day rehab facility.
“Some clients will come in and stay for a few hours. They’ll need a rest but are not able at this time to make significant changes in their health and wellbeing but they don’t want to die. We’ll welcome them into care and try to set up a treatment plan for them. Others will stay in withdrawal management for seven to 10 days and they may transition into a safe bed program in which they can stay for up to 30 days.”
“It’s hard to put into words how this feels,” said Ila Watson, SAH president and CEO.
“People in this community have worked so hard for so long for this. There’s a lot of pain behind this but there’s also a lot of wonderful opportunities to make a huge difference for people in Northway. As you look inside this facility the attention to detail that is driven from compassion for the clients that will be served is exceptional,” Watson said.
“So many people have lost, suffered and have advocated for change,” said a clearly emotional Sault MPP Romano during a speech at Thursday’s opening ceremony.
“We have to continue to learn more and educate ourselves more. We must focus on those root causes of trauma that lead individuals to the challenges that would bring them to a place like this. We must let those people know that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with talking about those things that cause you pain and that there is help and that we are there to support you, that the community will support you.”
“I’m beside myself,” Romano said, speaking to SooToday after the ribbon cutting.
“It’s something that I know we needed for a long time and there were a lot of challenging moments in getting us here and I’m just grateful that we have such an incredible team at Sault Area Hospital. I’m so grateful for all the community supports that made today possible.”
There had been questions and concerns around provincial government funding for Northway before funding announcements were made and work started on the project.
Watson said Sault Area Hospital looks forward to working with Romano on Phase 2 of Northway.
“That involves consolidating all the community based mental health and addictions services at the hospital under one roof,” Watson said.
That would require a physical expansion of the Northway building.
“It would be roughly 10,000 square feet on the other side of the building, on the east side,” Case said.
“We would like to pursue funding and support to do that and include all our services so that clients don’t have to run all over town to get care. We would have all of our community mental and addictions services here, from the hospital and a number of other locations as well, on East Street, March Street and Queen Street,” Case said.
Romano said he would be willing to work with SAH on securing funding for Phase 2 of Northway.
“Given the nature of the advocacy that’s been here to date I’m very excited to work with the team. We are up for another challenge, I know, but ultimately I think the original vision of locating all services under one roof was a very sensible and obvious one and now it's a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on Phase 2.”
Public tours of the new facility were offered after Thursday’s opening speeches and ribbon cutting.
Sixteen thousand square feet of the 28,000-square-foot Northway Wellness Centre building will provide safe care for people 16 and older who are experiencing substance withdrawal, are intoxicated or seeking help with relapse prevention.
Safe Beds at Northway provides voluntary crisis accommodations and support for those with mental health and or addiction crises.
Clients in the accessible building will have their own bedrooms and private washrooms, outdoor gardens for therapeutic purposes, confidential space for medical exams and individual and group counselling rooms.
There are also fitness and laundry rooms, secure entrances, a kitchen and dining room, living space and lounge areas.
IDEA Architecture/Engineering designed the renovations to the building while SalDan Construction Group carried them out. The building is owned by DiTommaso Developments.
Algoma Steel was a key donor, having donated $1 million towards Northway in July 2022.