DULUTH – The first Ronald McDonald House in northeastern Minnesota opened Wednesday in Duluth, giving families with sick children a free place to stay in the heart of the region's medical district.

The five-bedroom suite sits across the street from the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center and was expected to house its first family Wednesday night. The Ronald McDonald House Northland includes a full kitchen, family room and laundry facilities.

"We are honored to provide this important resource to families in the Twin Ports and across the Northland," Jill Evenocheck, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities-Upper Midwest, said in a statement.

The house is perched on the remodeled top floor of a 95-year-old building, and though it has the welcoming appearance of a hotel, Essentia CEO Dr. David Herman said in a statement that "the Ronald McDonald House is called a house, and not a hotel, because it does become people's homes. It's a place for them to recharge, a place for them to have respite."

Herman said Wednesday bringing a Ronald McDonald House to Duluth was part of the health system's Vision Northland plan, a $900 million investment in its downtown campus. The Essentia Health Foundation will provide ongoing financial support, though the house is available to any qualifying families receiving care in the Twin Ports, not just Essentia patients.

The health system said the average pediatric stay was four days in 2018, and nearly half of the 2,600 pediatric patients treated that year lived more than an hour away. The average cost of a hotel room in Duluth with a medical discount is about $135 per night, Essentia said.

"This is going to be such a gift for our community," said Dr. Ross Perko, a pediatric oncologist at Essentia. "This is the house that love built."

Construction began in July and the house was originally set to open to families in November, but the pandemic had other plans.

"We had some extraordinary circumstances in the past year," said Kristin Henry, Essentia's Vision Northland strategy coordinator. "We're really grateful we didn't have greater challenges."

There are four Ronald McDonald Houses in the Twin Cities, the first of which opened in 1979. About 6,600 families are served every year, and in 2019 families saved $6.2 million staying at the houses.

Evenocheck said the charity has learned how to adapt during the pandemic while building the new house.

"This has given us an opportunity to look at our processes," she said. "We are working with families with children who are compromised, and we are doing the best we can to make sure we are offering a clean facility. … It's everything we can think of and more."

The charity is still seeking "housewarming gifts" to keep essential supplies stocked in Duluth via an Amazon wish list. Cash contributions can be directed to essentiahealth.org/foundation.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496