DULUTH – Northern Minnesota's first Ronald McDonald House is set to open this fall in Duluth.

A five-bedroom suite on the top floor of Essentia Health's Fifth Avenue Building, across the street from St. Mary's Medical Center, will provide families of young children a free place to stay during long-term medical care.

"The ability of families to stay close during a child's illness without the stress of managing day-to-day essential needs is a priceless component of the entire medical experience," said Jill Evenocheck, chief executive of Ronald McDonald House Charities Upper Midwest, in a statement. "We are grateful to be able to provide that service in Duluth."

The Ronald McDonald House Northland will include a full kitchen, a family room and laundry facilities. Dinner will be served every night.

The average pediatric hospital stay at Essentia was four days in 2018, and nearly half of the 2,600 pediatric patients treated that year lived more than an hour away, according to the health system.

Patient priority will be determined by social workers based on the severity of medical needs.

"We know our pediatric families have needed a space like this for some time," said Derek Groves, chief development officer for the Essentia Health Foundation. "That is why we're so thrilled to finally see this happen, so we can support these families during one of the most difficult times in their lives."

The foundation intends to provide ongoing support for the project, which will have about $325,000 in annual operating expenses.

Construction will start in July and is expected to wrap up in November.

Depending on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic at that time, the facility could open below its five-family capacity, as other Ronald McDonald Houses have been operating recently.

Officials did not want to delay opening, however, and designed the Duluth location with the virus in mind.

"Even during a pandemic, children's critical injuries and illnesses don't stop," Evenocheck said during a news conference Thursday. "We wanted to open this program as soon as we could because we have families that need us."

Founded in 1974, there are more than 7,000 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide, including in Rochester, Minneapolis and St. Paul.