Von Bargen proudest of hospital effort as manager

Lisa Von Bargen is leaving after a little more than four years as borough manager, but that will not stop her from thinking about Wrangell.

For now, she needs to help take care of her mother in Valdez, easing the burden on her sister, she said.

“I don’t really want to leave Wrangell. I love it here,” Von Bargen said. “If I have an opportunity to do something here in town or Southeast, I would. I’m not giving up my condo right now unless it becomes absolutely necessary. So hopefully I’ll have some type of a presence here.”

Her last day as borough manager will be Friday. There are items on the borough’s to-do list that are left unfinished, said Von Bargen, who calls herself a perfectionist. She has prepared five or six pages (“irons in the fire”) of projects she won’t be able to see through to completion.

She said the new manager can call on her as a resource.

Her biggest accomplishment, she said, is the new hospital, which she worked toward from the start of her tenure here. The three-year effort included the borough getting out of the hospital business and the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium taking over and building a new medical center.

Von Bargen lived through something similar in Valdez, which transitioned to Providence Health running that community’s medical center during her time as community and economic development director. She came to Wrangell after 21 years in Valdez, as chamber of commerce director, with the convention and visitors bureau, and in the community development job.

“When I came for my interview (in Wrangell), I asked about the status of the community hospital here, because I had lived through the transition in Valdez,” Von Bargen said. “Valdez owned, and still owns, its community hospital, but it was managed by municipal hospital staff as a corporation of the municipality.”

The city of Valdez decided to bring in Providence as the operator, and Von Bargen said she witnessed the change, not only in health care, but also the economic engine that the hospital became in Valdez.

“It was clear Wrangell wanted to retain that community hospital standing,” Von Bargen recalled of her interview. Though she sensed the community “did not want to look at an operator,” it became very clear that it was not a financially viable option for the borough to continue as the owner/operator.

Through a public process, the community came together and realized, in fairly short order, she said, that a change was needed to ensure the viability of critical access health care in the community.

The timeline began in March 2018, when the borough began the process and sought public input, and ran to February 2021, when the $30.5 million Wrangell Medical Center opened its doors, owned and operated by SEARHC.

It would have been a feat for any municipality, but is an example of the nimbleness of government that is possible in a small town like Wrangell, Von Bargen said.

Another accomplishment, she said, was creating a capital facilities department in her first year, peeling off the duties from the public works department to diffuse the burden of maintenance of Wrangell’s aging infrastructure, which she said led to more building maintenance getting done.

She has conference and travel plans after her time as borough manager ends, and would like to be in Valdez by Thanksgiving.

After that, she said, “I also need to make sure that I am remaining nimble in terms of what the next career move is. I don’t know how long I’ll be in one place.”

Von Bargen is planning to take the things she’s learned in Wrangell and apply them to the next opportunity, whatever that may be.

Valdez had been her home for the vast majority of her life, she said, and she found a home in Wrangell, as well.

One of the first meetings she attended as borough manager was the Alaska Municipal League summer meeting in Haines in 2017. Everyone went around the room and spoke about the places they represented.

She recalled what she said, when it was her turn: “No roads, but all hearts lead to Wrangell.”

 

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