Photo by Brandon Macz
Photo by Brandon Macz

Neighborcare Health CEO Michael Erikson admired the view of the Seattle skyline from the fourth floor of the Pacific Tower on Friday. To his left was a dentist’s chair and station.

“There will be a homeless person there that will have a view that’s usually reserved for the privileged,” he said, referring to the new Dental Education Clinic slated to open next month, “so, at that moment, he or she will be the one that’s privileged.”

Through its first-of-its-kind model, the Dental Education Clinic will be operated by Neighborcare Health from inside Seattle Central College’s Health Education Center and primarily focused on serving low-income residents with little to no insurance.

Dental hygiene program students from Seattle Central and dental assisting students from the Seattle Vocational Institute will receive hands-on training. Up to 60 students from each program will be trained each quarter.

“This has never been done before in Seattle,” Erikson said.

It’s believed this teaching dental center model is the first in the nation.

With its expansion into Northgate and Rainier Valley, Erikson said Neighborcare expects to treat 10,000 dental patients annually, with 6,300 to be served at the Dental Education Clinic at around 19,000 visits.

Seeing a dentist can be a challenging process for even people with insurance, Erikson said, adding 27 percent of King County residents didn’t in 2015; about 40 percent didn’t in the clinic’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp took some credit for the Dental Education Center’s location during Friday’s dedication ceremony, recalling a conversation he had with Mark Secord, former Neighborcare CEO. 

“When we thought of saving this building and turning it into healthcare use, I ran into Mark Secord and I said, ‘Hey, Mark. You’re going into the building,’” Chopp said. “So, when I said that, I didn’t realize it would be all this greatness, by the way.”

Chopp lauded Delta Dental of Washington for its $2 million gift to help establish the clinic, adding as a state legislator he was prohibited from approaching Delta’s foundation — or any group with a lobby — about funding the project. 

“Eh, whatever, it’s a good law,” he said.

Delta Dental CEO Jim Dwyer said the novel approach of pairing a professional dental clinic with Seattle Colleges programs aligned with the organization’s mission.

“I believe it’s going to be a model fro delivery of care that will spread forward through the marketplace,” he said.

Dwyer added it’s good to see Pacific Tower — a building paid for with taxpayer dollars — back serving a public benefit.

The building opened in 1933 as a hospital for mariners and eventually became the headquarters for Amazon until the online retail giant relocated to South Lake Union in 2013. Seattle Central now leases six stories for its Health Education Center.

“Maybe we should thank Amazon,” joked Jill Wakefield, Seattle Colleges chancellor, when speaking about Pacific Tower’s return to health care purposes after 83 years.

More seriously, Wakefield thanked Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED), which covered a third of construction costs.

The OED and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced last August its use of critical tax credits for rehabilitation of the Pacific Tower Health and Innovation Center.

The city invests New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) through the Seattle Investment Fund LLC to support economic development projects. The Pacific Tower rehab received about $10 million in NMTCs and $460,0000 in operations funding.

OED Director Brian Surratt — speaking on behalf of the mayor — said his office will continue working with Seattle Colleges to advance the building’s rehabilitation and provide workforce training through its programs. 

The Dental Education Center has 20 patient chairs for providing annual exams, cleanings, fluoride treatments and emergency dental care, such as fillings, crowns, root canals and bridges.

Dental students are already using the clinic’s educational training space, which includes 12 practice chairs, ahead of the facility’s opening next month.

“It’s a win for our students. It’s a win for people who need affordable dental care,” said Seattle Central president Sheila Edwards-Lange, “and, frankly, it’s a win for our community.”

Additional funding for the Dental Education Clinic came from Seattle-King County Dental Society Foundation, the Norcliffe Foundation and the state of Washington.

The Dental Education Center at Pacific Tower is at 1200 12th Ave. S.