Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota are building a $50 million maternity center that will house mothers and babies, eliminating the need for sick babies to be whisked off to a different building.

The new building, on Elliott Avenue S. in Minneapolis next to Children's current facility, will be connected to Abbott Northwestern by a skyway.

The 96,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2012.

"This has been a glint in everybody's eyes for years and years," said Dr. Penny Wheeler, chief clinical officer at Allina Hospitals & Clinics, which owns Abbott.

The deal comes four years after talks for a new children's hospital fell apart. That proposal was considered by Allina, Children's and Fairview Health Services. This venture is smaller and builds on an existing partnership between Allina and Children's for the care of sick babies. Children's board approved the plan Tuesday. Allina's board had approved it earlier.

Under one roof

All pregnant women coming to Abbott, regardless of whether their pregnancy is high risk, eventually will deliver their babies in the new building. Doctors at Abbott deliver 4,200 babies a year, the most of any Twin Cities hospital.

Right now, Abbott's obstetrics department is a quarter-mile from Children's neonatal intensive care unit, with access through a tunnel.

"The less we have to move a sick baby, the better," said Children's chief executive, Dr. Alan Goldbloom. He said Children's St. Paul's campus, connected to Allina's United Hospital, already houses mothers and babies close to each other.

The new center also will have specialists in the new field of fetal diagnosis and intervention, where sick babies are treated even before they are born, Goldbloom said.

Allina and Children's will jointly run the new facility, with 72 percent of profit going to Children's and 28 percent to Allina.

Seen as marketing effort

The highly competitive market for delivering babies makes up a major proportion of a hospital's admissions.

Many Twin Cities hospitals have updated their birthing facilities. Meanwhile, the market for pediatric care is heating up, with the new $275 million University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital -- owned by Fairview Health Services -- set to open next March.

The as-yet unnamed Abbott/Children's birthing center will compete with all of them for young mothers, whom hospital officials hope to convert to life-long customers.

"I don't think this is an example of a hospital doing good community health planning," said Allan Baumgarten, a Twin Cities health care consultant. "It's a question of what's a more potent marketing configuration."

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434