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Ronald McDonald House plans to double capacity

$20M project foresees new, larger facility with long-term-stay suites

If there’s one thing Sandy Pagnotti hates, it’s a waiting list.

But if all goes according to plan, the president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore Inc. will be able to say goodbye to the dreaded list, which Pagnotti said contains a never-ending supply of names of families clamoring for a spot in the house.

Ronald McDonald House provides a home-away-from-home for families with seriously ill children receiving care at a local hospital, but the nonprofit has been pushed beyond capacity for the past couple of years.

To meet the added demand — which resulted from expansions at several nearby hospitals — the charity recently kicked off an ambitious plan to build a new facility almost twice as large as the existing one.

“Our dream, our vision, is that we never have to turn away a family in need because we don’t have room,” Pagnotti said.

In December, the organization selected a location — at the intersection of Baltimore and Aisquith streets in the Jonestown neighborhood — and it’s negotiating with the city to buy the lot. Construction crews won’t break ground for at least another 18 months, she said, and it will likely be three to four years before the new building, which is expected to cost between $20 million and $25 million, opens its doors.

The current Ronald McDonald House — a 24,000-square-foot building with 36 rooms, one family per room — is located on Lexington Street less than half a mile from the University of Maryland Medical Center. The new site has enough room to build a facility with 55 to 60 rooms, including eight to 10 long-term-stay suites for families of children with lengthy treatments or recovery times.

The organization decided it wanted to transfer all its operations to a single, larger facility rather than run two smaller ones because the latter option seemed out of sync with its mission, Pagnotti said.

“It’s not just about housing people; it’s about giving them the feeling of community and camaraderie,” she said. “The parents understand what the others are going through, and the kids befriend one another. We think that all needs to happen under one roof.”

The new site is also more centrally located to the six hospitals that supply the majority of Ronald McDonald House’s tenants, so it’s more convenient for more people, Pagnotti said.

“Whatever hospital [the child] is being treated in, it’ll be an almost straight shot to get to us,” Pagnotti said. “This new location gives us the ability to build the dream from the ground up. We’re building the dream from scratch.”

The organization, which has an annual operating budget of about $2 million, has identified its two most pressing tasks: launching a fundraising campaign for the project, and working with architects to design the building so employees and volunteers can show renderings to potential donors.

The organization has put out a request for proposals for the architectural and design work and will soon begin seeking approvals and permits to begin construction.

Baltimore’s Ronald McDonald House, which opened in June 1982, is one of hundreds of locations in 54 countries. Some states have more than one location, but the Baltimore house is the only one in Maryland because most of the state’s major hospitals are concentrated in the city. The Baltimore house employs seven full-time and six part-time workers, and a handful more will be hired due to the expansion.

The organization also maintains a network of thousands of volunteers, who Pagnotti said will be crucial in making the new location a success.

“Our goal for when the doors open is to be the best Ronald McDonald House in the whole world,” she said. “We’re not going for second-best.”