CLEARWATER — A $4.1 million project seeks to bolster outpatient medical services for north county veterans that have been stretched a bit thin in recent years.

“The current clinic in Palm Harbor is not large enough,” said Joseph Scotchlas, associate director of Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health System. “We opened that clinic 10 years ago, and a lot of things change in 10 years.”

To address the need for a larger facility, work began in February to convert a former Toys R Us location in Clearwater into a 25,000-square-foot outpatient clinic. The facility will serve an estimated 7,000 VA patients in north Pinellas County.

The 9,000-square-foot Palm Harbor clinic will be closed once the new facility opens in January. The new location is situated just across U.S. 19 from the Countryside Mall, at Countryside Boulevard.

Bidding on the project was completed last year, and in January the conversion work was awarded to a Tampa-based general contractor, ABI Cos., by the site owner, West Second Street Associates, a real estate developer based in Flint, Michigan.

“The contractor has been a phenomenal partner and have stayed on time and on budget,” Scotchlas said.

He added that the project has been relatively unimpeded by the pandemic, as all bidding was done electronically. In fact, with the surge in pricing generally throughout the Pinellas real estate market this year, “we had a bit of luck bidding it out when we did,” Scotchlas said.

“We’re as excited as they are,” said John Sabty, managing partner of West Second Street Associates. “It’s been a great project.”

Once work is completed, the VA will pay annual rent of $1.66 million on the site.

Conversion work, which is expected to run through 2021, completes a project greenlighted by VA hierarchy almost three years ago.

“We are constantly evaluating our services in Pinellas and all of our counties, and we decided in late in 2018 that we need to expand our footprint,” Scotchlas said. “There’s been a significant increase in staff and the number of services we provide over the 10 years since we opened the clinic in Palm Harbor. It gets to be a little bit like trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag.”

Creating a new clinic also will allow for a design conducive to the kind of holistic approach now being incorporated into VA medical services.

“The way we do business has also changed a lot,” Scotchlas said. “So, we completely redesigned the clinic, incorporating a lot of human-centered design into the facility. It’s not going to be the typical office atmosphere of, ‘Come here and take a number.’ We have a program called Whole Health, and we have incorporated some of those ideas into this.

“We have full staff of health coaches and related programs that will be incorporated into the clinic,” he added. “We are completely redesigning the new clinic with the veteran in mind — not just the physical structure but all of the services — with the aim of being veteran-centered.”

Baker Barrios Architects of Tampa are providing the project design work.

The move to Clearwater means an expanding array of VA medical and mental health services will be situated closer to a greater number of vets’ homes, the Bay Pines associate director noted.

Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Healthcare System is headquartered in the sole VA hospital in Pinellas, located in Bay Pines, an unincorporated area just east of Madeira Beach. The Bay Pines system serves almost 120,000 veterans in a 10-county region.

An outpatient clinic in St. Petersburg, serving south county vets, is unaffected by the move of north county services. Tampa also has a VA hospital, with outpatient clinics bordering Pinellas located in New Port Richey, Tampa, and Bradenton.

Work on the new Clearwater clinic is entirely federally funded, via the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Bay Pines VAHS is a regional unit of the federal agency.