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Charlotte-Lee-Collier
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 5 years ago

Big Smile

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A Fort Myers dentist hopes a new office with a theme-park atmosphere will keep kids and their parents coming back.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Can medical practitioners learn from the hospitality industry?

When Tim Verwest was considering expanding his pediatric dentistry practice, he borrowed ideas from the world of retail and theme parks to create a wonderland office in Fort Myers that includes a giant sculpture two stories high on busy Summerlin Road.

Verwest says the high-profile location and giant eye-catching sculptures inside and outside his building could boost his patient roster by 20% to 30%. It's another example of the trend of medical practitioners locating on high-traffic corridors in Southwest Florida to get noticed.

Since he started practicing in 1992, Verwest's Pediatric Dentistry of Fort Myers was tucked away in a nondescript building off Cypress Lake Drive. “It was terrible visibility,” he says.

To be sure, the low-visibility location didn't hurt his business because Verwest built a well-established reputation over the years. About 50 to 60 children from newborns to teens pass through his Fort Myers practice each day. His father, Lee Verwest, was the first pediatric dentist in Fort Myers.

But Verwest, 50, says he wanted to grow the business and expand his solo practice so more dentists could join him. He bought three acres on busy Summerlin Road and commissioned the construction of a 7,800-square-foot, $2.5 million building that is more than three times the size of his old office.

“I didn't want to under-build,” says Verwest. He subscribes to this workplace philosophy: “If you've got to have a cave, make it a nice cave,” he chuckles.

As caves go, this one is stunning. Designed by GMA Architects and Unthank Design Group, the building had to be set back 10 feet so that a theme-park edifice fronting Summerlin Road could fit. “This is by far the most interactive and elaborate project we've built from that standpoint,” says Mark Stevens, president of Stevens Construction, the builder. “It's like a mini theme park.”

The building has large windows so natural light can flood the spacious interior to highlight the half-dozen character sculptures. There are video games and flat-screen televisions featuring children's shows spread around the building. “We have to do our part, but I want the environment to be super inviting,” says Verwest, who opened the doors to the new building Oct 15.

Designed by Imagination Dental Solutions, the amusement-park sculptures feature Shades the Dog, a fun-loving pup who wears sunglasses. One sculpture has Shades surfing a giant life-sized wave, and another one has him climbing a tree to avoid a hungry alligator, for example.

Adults find the space inviting, too. “Adults want to get on the wave,” Verwest says.

The centerpiece of the office is a giant sculpture two stories high featuring a huge octopus spread out over pirate treasure. Six examination tables with benches for siblings surround the sculpture. A glass wall separates another two examination seats for teens, who often prefer to be separate from younger children.

The building is designed so patient flow is efficient. Like at popular restaurants, parents will have pagers to tell them when their child is ready so they can chat with the dentist without anyone having to wait. The large lobby is designed so that it won't seem crowded. “I didn't want people sitting on top of each other,” says Verwest.

Verwest and his staff of 12 employees now have room to manage 12 children at a time instead of five at their previous location. He'll still charge the same for his services, which range from about $120 to $150 for an exam, x-rays and cleaning. “I want to be right in the norm,” he says. “I haven't changed any of our business structure.”

But a colleague who likewise expanded his practice in Orlando saw his patient volumes grow 20% to 30% as a result of the better location. Paradoxically, Verwest says the higher patient load will allow him to hire dentists so he can spend more time with his own children, including a third one due in February. “We're looking for an associate dentist right now,” says Verwest.

Shopping for doctors
Economic changes in medicine and the downturn in commercial real estate values have combined to alter the way doctors locate their practices.

With declining medical reimbursements, doctors are forced to replace income by increasing the number of patients they see, and one way to do that is to move to a high-traffic location. Instead of being tucked away in medical-office space, they're choosing shopping centers on busy streets.

For example, Jay Crandall with Crandall Commercial Group in Bonita Springs recently helped a dermatology practice move into a 4,000-square-foot space inside a shopping center that faces U.S. 41. Tenants next door include a restaurant and art store.

Crandall says retail rents have traditionally cost more than medical space, but because of the economic downturn they have been more on par with each other.

Randy Mercer, founding partner at CRE Consultants, a commercial brokerage firm in Fort Myers and Naples, estimates that medical office space in a good location in Southwest Florida with the space built out commands lease rates of about $15 per square foot, net of expenses. According to CoStar Group, the average rental rate for retail space in shopping centers around Southwest Florida is about $13 per square foot.

“Medical specialties that are based on fee for service and elective, they have to have a more retail component,” Crandall says.

“Shopping centers typically have large parking lots,” Crandall adds. “Sometimes you have easier access.”

Ramon Acevedo, principal architect with GMA Architects in Fort Myers, says new retail space is easy to design for medical use. “You have an empty shell and some of them don't even have concrete slab,” he says. “You don't have to go back and do demolition.”

What's more, Acevedo says the decline in commercial real estate values means doctors can buy space for their practice for the same price that they're renting. Physicians with well-established practices can obtain bank financing for commercial real estate, he notes.

“They're having to figure out how to cut costs and get patients,” says Mark Stevens, whose firm Stevens Construction has built numerous medical facilities throughout the region. “Retail space was more expensive than medical, but now the numbers are working.”

Existing retail buildings such as banks and restaurants are being renovated for doctors' offices. For example, Stevens says he's going to renovate a building that formerly housed Mexican eatery Jalapeƃ±os on high-traffic College Parkway in Fort Myers into a medical practice.

As financial pressures mount from lower insurance reimbursements, many smaller practices are joining larger ones or consolidating with rivals. Often, they will consolidate operations into a larger building. “Profit margins are squeezed,” says Mercer. “It's a whole new day when it comes to the medical community.”

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