WINDBER, Pa. - Nearly a century after Windber Medical Center opened its doors, the coal company that started the industrial infirmary no longer commands this western Pennsylvania community.
Now it’s the hospital — which has evolved into a stateof-the-art health care facility — that’s the town’s epicenter. With an affiliated research institute and cutting-edge programs to treat heart disease and breast and prostate cancer, it is now Windber’s biggest employer and is recruiting academics and physicians from as far away as Nigeria.
The transformation is emblematic of the nation’s shift from industrial state to service economy, and a welcome contrast to the economic and emotional depression that has swept across Rust Belt towns of the Northeast and Midwest.
‘‘When this hospital started, it took care of the people who provided the fuel to drive the 20th century,’’ said F. Nicholas Jacobs, a former high school teacher who’s now president of the medical center and Windber Research Institute. ‘‘One hundred years later, people from all over the world are coming here to do research that drives the 21st century."
Berwind-White Coal Mining Co. built the hospital in 1906, just as it created the store, theater and other amenities in the company town. But its presence has faded; now the Berwind Group, it occupies just an office in the town whose name, Windber, is a play on the company’s name.
The medical center is the influential force in residents’ lives, encouraging other companies to relocate to the town, arranging mentoring relationships among employees and high school students and offering the public the use of its facilities. More than 1,200 residents of the Windber area belong to the medical center’s health club and the town’s senior center is located at the center.
Incorporated in 1897, Windber once had a population as large as 12,000 as immigrants moved to the area to work in the coal industry, Mayor Art Palumbo said. But jobs slowly began to disappear as coal companies shifted from deep mining to surface mining and Berwind-White started leasing mines and reserves to other companies.
Windber’s population began to drop in the 1960s as residents left to find jobs, but Palumbo believes the exodus has slowed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the town had a population of more than 4,200 in 2002.
In February 1997, Jacobs left his job as chief communications officer for the medical center’s parent, Conemaugh Health System, to head the hospital. At that time, the medical center faced the same obstacles as other small hospitals — with just 82 beds, physicians are often inclined to send patients to larger facilities less than 10 miles away, Jacobs said.
Moreover, it’s considered a small hospital because of its proximity to Johnstown and is not eligible for programs or funding as a rural hospital.
But Jacobs saw potential. He created an affiliation with a nonprofit consultancy called Planetree, an organization that helps hospitals brainstorm new ways to provide patient-driven care. The hospital also made changes, starting with more liberal visiting hours and including inroom messages, live entertainment and fresh-baked bread.
Soon, the hospital established a Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, which uses diet, exercise, support groups and stress management.
The Windber Research Institute began in 1999, creating a partnership with Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The hospital and the institute also have partnerships with General Electric Research and Development, Penn State and Georgetown universities and other institutions.
Jacobs’ most strategic move was seeking the help of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D.-Pa. In 2002, Murtha announced that $10 million of a Defense Appropriations bill would be directed to the center’s Comprehensive Breast Care Project and Coronary Artery and Prostate Cancer Reversal Programs.
In 2000, the medical center received $4 million to lead a research initiative studying genetic factors in breast cancer, and in 2002 dedicated the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, named for the congressman’s wife.
The medical center, which operated on a $17 million budget in 1997, now has a budget of $40 million and had net income of $438,000 in the last fiscal year, Jacobs said. The research institute has a budget of $25 million.
The center’s success makes Windber more attractive to other businesses, Palumbo said, although so far, the influx of jobs has been small. Within the last two years, NCR Government Corp.’s Teradata Division, Management Science Associates, ThreatGuard and MDR Global Systems opened laboratories and offices in Windber.