Rendering of the new NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center main entrance on Plymouth Ave. N. Credit: AECOM

by David Pierini

From the community uprisings in the late 1960s, a bold experiment rose to bring the underserved residents of North Minneapolis healthcare and social services under one roof.

Even the name, Pilot City Health Center, reflected a test of an idea so new there was no certainty for sustainable success. 

Fifty-four years later, NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center is expanding its campus near the intersection of Penn and Plymouth avenues to better serve the physical and emotional wellbeing of more than 36,000 patients.  

To meet growing needs, NorthPoint is in the middle of a $90 million buildout expected to finish by the first quarter of 2024.  

“We are the healthcare home for North Minneapolis and that is something we don’t take lightly,” said Stella Whitney-West, NorthPoint’s chief executive officer. “We recognize that we have provided services to multiple generations and households. We have members on our board who came to Pilot City when they were children. 

“Generations of families not only embrace us, but they also see us as a trusted entity. One of the things that I remind our staff is how critical it is that the people you serve must also trust you.” 

That trust is reflected in the way many older Northside residents still call it Pilot City. 

NorthPoint is a federally qualified health center serving North Minneapolis since 1968. It has a public entity partnership with Hennepin County and is run by a community board composed mostly of people of color.  

It provides medical, dental, behavioral health and human services. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, NorthPoint set up drive-up testing in its parking garage and since the creation of a vaccine, has administered more than 25,000 jabs. 

More than 60 percent of the 400 staff members are people of color, which offers a level of comfort to a community with strong reservations about the healthcare system.  

“It’s important that our staff reflect the community,” said Kimberly Spates, Northpoint’s chief operating officer. “We can have the conversation somebody else might be unable to have to get them to show up to the doctor, have their diabetes managed and get their COVID shot.” 

In the beginning, Pilot City was one of 13 pilot projects for integrated services that grew out of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs. These service centers (NorthPoint is one of only a few remaining from the original pilot programs) served as a model for today’s public health policy that recognizes that the aspects of poverty, such as hunger, housing insecurity, unemployment and under-resourced schools, have deep impacts to the physical and psychological health of a community.  

Pilot City set up shop in the former Beth El synagogue and operated out of four separate spaces before building the current location at 1313 Penn Avenue N. 

A photo of the original Pilot City Regional Center, date unknown. Photo credit: NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center

The pillars of care Pilot City established – whole-person integrated care, community well-being and health equity – continue to inform the care NorthPoint provides. 

From 2009 to 2019, NorthPoint experienced a 33 percent growth in patient visits and Whitney-West said the new campus is designed to fortify the pillars of care by giving staff a larger, more efficient space to increase that quality of care for a growing base of patients. 

Once finished, the new campus will have double the square footage and offer several features and benefits to accommodate a growing North Minneapolis. These include drop-in daycare, expanded dental services, a new central registration, a spiritual, healing and wellness center for mediation, yoga and other programs, employment training, a food shelf distribution center with greater cold storage capacity, a bistro café, and a community courtyard with rainwater gardens. 

Rendering of the new NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center entrance from Queen Ave N and Plymouth Ave N. Graphic by AECOM.

Nutritionists will not continue to talk to patients about healthy meal plans, but they will be able to cook and try out recipes with clients in a new teaching kitchen. 

NorthPoint’s current space presents challenges for visitors with multiple needs. Some services, like the food pantry, are in a different location and within the health center itself, staff can spend precious time tracking down colleagues to deliver integrated care. 

“As a patient, it will be the same integrated care that they’ve always experienced but it will happen in a more uniform and streamlined fashion,” said Ellen Johnson, the campus expansion operations manager. “This project allowed us to rethink which groups work most closely together. So, for example, within our medical department, there will be space carved out for care coordination staff, for behavioral health and for nutrition staff. Now we have providers in four different spots, and we’re squished for space.

“This will be a better experience for staff which definitely correlates with a better experience for the patient.” 

Rahshana Price grew up in North Minneapolis and dreamed of becoming a doctor so that she could help her community. She remembers Pilot City as a kind of community hub where everybody went for a variety of services. 

After graduating from medical school at the University of Maryland, Dr. Rahshana Price-Isuk worked in several community clinics before she joined NorthPoint as the director of clinical services. She also sees patients. 

“What really excites me is the thought of NorthPoint being that place where everyone desires to go,” she said. “I think a lot of community clinics have some work to do to be known as that place. NorthPoint excels at staying ahead of the game there.”  

About the author: David Pierini is the editor-in-chief at North News.