The grandstand building at former Scarborough Downs racetrack is being transitioned to a mass vaccination clinic to be set up by MaineHealth this week. Workers convert a large room into a waiting area at the front of the building on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bill Caron made the call on Jan. 8, hoping the company that’s redeveloping the former Scarborough Downs would let him use the old grandstand building as a mass vaccination site for COVID-19.

The 70-year-old building was rundown and had been unoccupied since the long-struggling facility permanently ended live harness racing in November. It needed a facelift and some major upgrades. But it was ideally situated between the Maine Turnpike and Route 1, so it would readily serve residents of Cumberland and York counties and beyond. And it had over 50,000 square feet of ground-level open floor space and a parking area built to host up to 7,000 racing fans.

Caron, CEO of the MaineHealth network that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland, was on a mission to help Maine vaccinate the bulk of its 1.3 million residents by midsummer. He knew, from experience in vaccinating MaineMed employees, that goal wouldn’t be met if doses were administered piecemeal through hundreds of smaller providers.

Crossroads Holdings, the company that’s redeveloping the 524-acre Downs property into housing, a business park and a town center, accepted Caron’s challenge.

In a handshake deal, Peter Michaud and the other owners agreed to renovate the building at cost and let MaineHealth operate a vaccination clinic there rent-free for six months. Longer if necessary.

With almost military precision, they brought together 40 contractors, subcontractors and vendors who dropped other projects and put crews on site every day for two weeks, updating or replacing everything from worn floor tiles and broken windows to old wiring and leaky roofing.

“Everybody rallied around this cause,” said Billy Risbara, a Crossroads Holdings partner who managed the project. “In the last few days, crews have been shaking my hand and telling me, ‘Thank you for letting me be a part of this.’ ”

Now, less than a month after Caron made the first call to Michaud, MaineHealth is scheduled to open the clinic on Tuesday in a building that has undergone nearly $1 million in renovations and is ready to inoculate 1,700 people per day as soon as the vaccine supply allows it. Caron isn’t surprised that Michaud and Risbara got it done, but he is impressed with how well they did it.

“There’s a difference between saying ‘I’ll help’ and saying ‘I’m all in and I’m going to do everything I can,’ ” Caron said. “And that’s just the way Peter responded to me. I wasn’t surprised that he felt the need to do everything he could, but he’s gone beyond that.”

Risbara visited a smaller vaccination clinic that MaineHealth opened last week in Westbrook to see for himself what kind of setup would be needed and adjusted plans for the Downs site accordingly. “He invested enough time to figure out how it really worked,” Caron said. “There aren’t many contractors that do that.”

A MaineHealth registered nurse loads empty syringes into plastic boxes at one of many vaccination stations within the grandstand at the former Scarborough Downs facility. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Downs is one of several mass vaccination sites opening across Maine as the Biden administration promises to increase vaccine supply beyond the trickle that’s been available since December. It’s an apt location in what public health officials say has become a race to stay ahead of more contagious COVID-19 variants that are emerging around the world and driving up the death toll.

MaineHealth’s site in Westbrook can vaccinate 700 per day; Northern Light Health is set to open a clinic Tuesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor that can vaccinate as many as 2,000 per day; and other sites are planned in Portland, Brunswick and on Maine Community College System campuses in Fairfield, Bangor and Presque Isle.

Caron and his management team haven’t quite figured out how MaineHealth will staff and pay for the clinic at the Downs for months to come. He’s hoping to be reimbursed as Biden moves ahead with plans to open up to 100 mass vaccination clinics across the country and allow state and local governments to receive greater reimbursements for vaccine administration expenses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund.

He’s also looking to business and civic leaders to provide reinforcements for the small army of volunteers who have already stepped forward. The clinic will need 100 people on site continually to operate at full capacity 12 hours per day, including registrars, vaccinators and observers. Some MaineHealth employees will be redeployed from other duties, contributing to an estimated cost of $50 per shot to operate the clinic.

Faced with a state public health system that was gutted by former Gov. Paul LePage, and an “interim draft” COVID-19 vaccination plan that’s short on details about how the vaccine will be administered across the state, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has looked to hospitals to fill the void, with assistance from the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine Army National Guard.

MaineHealth IT technician Scott McCutcheon prepares to set up computer monitors at vaccination stations throughout the grandstand at the former Scarborough Downs facility. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“In defense of the folks at the state, they’ve been under water for months now, dealing with COVID testing, contact tracing, getting us the supplies we need,” Caron said. “It’s been a challenge, but I think the state has done an incredible job with the resources they have. Because what little public health system we had as a state was basically dismantled by the prior administration and we unfortunately didn’t have a chance to rebuild it before COVID hit.”

EARLY RETURN FROM FLORIDA

Peter Michaud answered Caron’s call from his winter home in Marco Island, Florida, where he works remotely on projects back in Maine. He immediately called Billy Risbara, who also lives and works remotely on Marco Island.

“I hung up and called Billy,” Michaud said. “I knew I couldn’t do this without him.”

Crossroads Holdings is made up of Billy, Rocco and Marc Risbara, and Peter and Richard Michaud, lifelong friends and Scarborough residents who bought the Downs in January 2018 for $6.7 million. The Michauds formerly owned Michaud Distributors, a Northeast regional snack delivery company. Risbara Bros. Construction has built numerous residential and commercial projects over the last five decades. And together, the Risbaras and Michauds operate Maine Properties, which owns and manages real estate throughout Greater Portland.

Peter Michaud and Billy Risbara weren’t due back in Maine for three months.

The grandstand building at former Scarborough Downs Racetrack is being transitioned to a mass vaccination clinic to be set up by MaineHealth later this week. Workers convert a large room into a waiting area at the front of the building on Tuesday. Derek Davis

The following Monday, Jan. 11, they flew into Portland, passed their COVID-19 tests and met with MaineHealth staff the next day at the grandstand building. Within hours, they had lined up contractors and suppliers to get the project rolling. They rattle off square footage of roofing and flooring replaced as if it were advantage gained on a battlefield.

“This is a war on a virus,” Michaud admits. “We recognize that until we get vaccination well underway, we can’t get Maine back up on its feet. And as long as Maine people can’t get back on their feet, the whole state is at risk economically and socially.”

With Mancini Electric in the lead, contractors worked together to install 12 miles of new electrical and data wiring, 20,000 square feet of rubber roofing and 7,000 square feet of flooring. Workers wearing masks replaced 4,500 ceiling tiles, polished 33,000 square feet of concrete flooring, and repaired and waterproofed 600 linear feet of windows overlooking the racetrack. And they installed 200 new LED lights and upgraded 200 existing fluorescent fixtures.

Every wall got a fresh coat of paint, bathrooms were gutted and rebuilt, the entire first floor was sanitized and 12 gas-fired heating units were hung from the ceiling. The units were fitted with ionizers that neutralize allergens and toxins in the air and coolant coils so they can provide air conditioning this summer if necessary.

“Pine State Services had the heat on in six days,” Risbara said. An air filtration system was deemed unnecessary because the uninsulated building is so drafty and the main rooms are so large.

Many contractors went out of their way to get things done in short order. Huttig Building Products shut down a production line and produced 12 custom wooden doors in one afternoon. Budget Blinds measured, ordered and installed blinds across the building’s massive wall of windows within a few days. And Maine Roofing drove to New Hampshire to get rolled rubber roofing that’s one of many hard-to-find building supplies during the pandemic.

The grandstand building at former Scarborough Downs Racetrack is being transitioned to a mass vaccination clinic to be set up by MaineHealth later this week. At the request of MaineHealth, developers have left some of the historic features of the racetrack. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bill Darling, owner of Maine Roofing, said he’s a friend of the developers and he sees working on the clinic project as good for business and good for Maine.

“They’re a good team to work with and it’s a good project to be involved in,” Darling said. “But it’s personal, too. My mother is in her late 70s and she’d like to get her shot, and the faster we can get the vaccine out to everybody, the better.”

Crossroads Holdings is dedicated for the long haul to helping Maine meet its vaccination goals, Michaud said. As developers, they’re used to deadlines with high stakes. They negotiated a tax deal with the town of Scarborough that would reimburse as much as $81 million in property taxes over three decades if they succeed in developing $615 million in new assessed value at the Downs in 20 years.

They’re on track to satisfy that goal within a few years, with more than 250 apartments, condominiums, single-family homes and light industrial buildings already completed or under construction. So, hosting a vaccination clinic in the grandstand building for the bulk of 2021 is a modest effort.

“We’re committed,” Michaud said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with this building or what this means for the rest of the Downs, but we’re committed.”

GETTING TO THE DOWNS

Initially, people driving to the Downs vaccination clinic will be limited to the Payne Road entrance, which is just north of Cabela’s and Exit 42 of the Maine Turnpike. Access from the Route 1 entrance won’t be available until a few utility poles are moved to allow safe traffic flow, likely by mid-April, Michaud said. Signs will be posted at the entrances to direct traffic.

MaineHealth IT technician Lou Dugal prepares to set up computers at vaccination stations throughout the grandstand at the former Scarborough Downs facility. The healthcare network and the developers of the Downs have been working for two weeks to renovate the building and set up a COVID vaccine clinic that’s expected to open next week to vaccinate a conservative estimate of 1,000 people per day once the vaccine gets flowing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There are 280 striped parking spaces, including 27 handicapped spaces, and room for 250 additional spaces, if necessary. Security will be coordinated by the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Maine National Guard, Caron said.

The town required MaineHealth to get a mass gathering permit to address perennial concerns about parking, traffic and security, said Town Manager Tom Hall. The Town Council held a special meeting last week to consider the permit, which was granted unanimously.

“I am not aware of any opposition to (the clinic),” Hall said. “To a person, everyone I have spoken with sees this as very positive for our community and our nation. We are pleased to do our part in this important worldwide effort.”

The clinic is set up so people will enter the grandstand building through one door, move through the vaccination process, and exit through a separate door. Patients will queue up in a 10,000-square-foot former betting parlor just inside the main entrance, where they will fill out necessary consent forms.

From there, they will be ushered through a check-in area and directed to one of 24 vaccination stations outfitted with computers across the 33,000 square foot main room, where racing fans once lined up to place wagers at the betting counter.

Then they will move to the observation area, where 80 chairs are spaced 6 feet apart to allow physical distancing under COVID-19 safety protocols. Staff will observe patients for adverse reactions for 15 to 30 minutes after inoculation, with epinephrine auto-injection pens and medical staff ready to address any medical problems.

The grandstand building at former Scarborough Downs Racetrack is being transitioned to a mass vaccination clinic to be set up by MaineHealth later this week. A booth in the main room has been converted to function as a pharmacy and supplies area. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Patients will check out at the betting counter and schedule the required booster shot, to be administered three weeks later at the Downs clinic, then exit the building.

The Winners Circle Lounge was converted into a break room for clinic staff and volunteers. And some harness racing decor has been preserved, including murals of horses and two concession stands that have been converted into pharmacies, where vaccine will be stored and distributed to vaccinators as needed.

“We tried to leave some pieces of the building intact so we have some history visible as people are vaccinated,” said Carol Hughes, project manager for Maine Medical Partners.

ANTICIPATING CHALLENGES AHEAD

Eventually, MaineHealth plans to operate the clinic from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, with hope to regularly vaccinate 1,500 people per day and possibly flexing up near 2,000 vaccinations daily.

To start, however, Tuesday is a dress rehearsal, vaccinating MaineHealth workers, said Monica Russo, vice president of practice operations for Maine Medical Partners.

The first public vaccination day will be Wednesday, starting at 1 p.m., when 114 people are scheduled to be inoculated; 345 people each are scheduled to be vaccinated Thursday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Appointments are being scheduled only a week in advance until vaccine allocations are known for the following week.

Getting enough vaccine is Bill Caron’s primary concern as the clinic prepares to open. He’s also worried about finding enough volunteers to staff it full time and managing community expectations as vaccinations ramp up. If they ramp up.

It’s likely to grow more complicated as the Maine CDC continues to prioritize additional groups for vaccination, beyond the health care workers, long-term care residents and people age 70 and older who have already been tapped.

“This is going to take a long time,” Caron said. “If this was a world of unlimited supply, this would be 100 times easier. We would get this done. But it’s going to be limited supply for the better part of six months. And any time you limit supply when people want something, it just becomes a tough balancing act.”

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