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How Gardens hospital sat empty for nearly 3 years

Palm Beach Gardens Community Hospital in undated photo from the Palm Beach Gardens Historical Society archives.

Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center was built and ready to open in January 1966 but didn’t open until nearly three years later, in November 1968.

The reasons, spelled out in news clippings from the time, revolved around differences between the man who put up the money to build the hospital, Palm Beach Gardens founder John D. MacArthur, and the City Council elected by the city’s 3,000 residents.

MacArthur got the City Council’s go-ahead to build the hospital in 1962, when the City Council consisted of his hand-picked employees. By the time he had spent $839,000 and gotten a $420,000 federal grant to complete the 86-bed hospital, the council’s makeup had changed. 

MacArthur knew that building the first hospital in north county would help him attract homebuyers to help him develop huge swaths of undeveloped land.

By the time hospital construction ended, MacArthur no longer controlled the City Council. The new council was elected by popular vote.

The elected council, which pointed out that the city had donated land worth $47,000 for the hospital, worried that hospital revenues would not be enough to pay off $1.2 million in construction bonds. MacArthur had assured the council he would buy the bonds at 5 percent interest. 

But the council didn’t want to issue the bonds. Members worried that the 7-year-old city’s credit rating would take a hit if the hospital defaulted. So even though a court had authorized the bonds in 1966 and construction had passed inspection on Jan. 19, 1966, the hospital remained shuttered.

It would not open until Nov. 25, 1968, a span of two years and 10 months. 

In the interim, the federal officials got involved, worried that their money would be wasted, but they made little headway.

An osteopathic group looking for a hospital foothold tried to buy the building but backed out in December 1967.

In July 1968, the city found a buyer for the hospital on Florida’s West Coast, United American Medical Services of St. Petersburg.

But a month later, in August 1968, MacArthur sued to stop the sale and force the city to issue $1.2 million in bonds.

Mayor George Bonner, when informed of the lawsuit by a newspaper reporter, said, “The contract we signed with the St. Petersburg group provided for the payment of the amount owed to MacArthur, along with interest, so I can’t figure out what he wants now.”

The city settled the suit in October 1968. The attorney for MacArthur’s Bankers Life & Casualty, John Burns (Burns Road anyone?) said MacArthur would be paid the $839,000 he put up to build the hospital and the sale would go through.

The hospital, called the Palm Beach Gardens Community Hospital, formally opened Nov. 25, 1968, but it didn’t admit its first patients until Dec. 12. It named orthopedic surgeon Dr. George Ford its first chief of staff and opened with 42 staff physicians.

Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, owned by Tenet Healthcare, now stands as one of two full-service hospitals in north county (with Jupiter Medical Center).

A third medical center is on the way, the Universal Health Services (UHS) hospital under construction along Interstate 95 just south of Donald Ross Road in Alton.

— Joel Engelhardt

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