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St. John's hospital site revealed

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| January 21, 2009 11:00 PM

St. John’s Lutheran Hospital finally made public at Tuesday’s Libby City Council meeting what many suspected all along – the new hospital will be built adjacent to the current facility.

“I’m happy to tell you we’ve acquired two of the three pieces of land,” St. John’s Lutheran Hospital chief executive officer Bill Patten said at the meeting. “We need the city’s permission for the third.”

The $36 million project will be located on a seven-acre campus in the medical district, wrapping around the Lincoln County Health Center and bordered by railroad tracks, Libby Care Center, the hospital’s rehabilitation building and the current hospital. The hospital building will encompass about 77,000 square feet.

Patten asked the council to allow the campus to be built over portions of Second Street and Dakota Avenue.

The areas are “dedicated road right-of-ways,” according to Dan Thede, supervisor of city services. The two strips of land belong to the city but have not yet been developed into streets.

Patten had another request as well.

“We’re not asking to own the settling ponds, but we hope to incorporate them into the landscaping of our campus,” Patten said.

Patten painted a picture of a grassy hospital campus with picnic tables and duck pond views. He presented the council with an artist’s rendering of the building, a “mountain lodge look,” he said.

“When will you break ground?” council member Charlene Leckrone asked Patten at the meeting.

“Funding answers that question,” he responded.

If the last property is approved by the city council, the hospital’s next step will be securing federal dollars and applying for loans, then drawing up blueprints and breaking ground.

“If President Obama were to call tomorrow and say, ‘Yes, you have the funding,’ we could have the project ready to go in three to four months,” Patten said during an interview.

Patten asked the council to write a formal letter of support for the project to help in gaining federal dollars. The hospital has sent more than 200 requests for letters from local politicians, members of the medical staff and influential community members.

“We need to show them that the community is really behind this process,” Patten said.

Hospital board members are scheduled to meet with representatives for Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester to help guide them in the application process.

As a federally designated critical access hospital, the government pays about half of construction expenses, according to Patten. In addition to that funding, Patten hopes to secure money from a federal stimulus package introduced to build roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. While regular federal funding wouldn’t be available until August or September, Patten hopes money from the second source will come sooner.

Patten made it clear at the meeting that the hospital would be built with “no sales tax support, property tax support, and no artificially raised prices.”

Patten remains upbeat about how the project is progressing.

“This has been moving really quickly,” he said. “Talking to other (hospital) administrators, it takes three to five years to do what we’ve gotten done in the last six months.”

St. John’s already owned most of the property for the new campus, land surrounding Lincoln County Health Center. A 38,000-square-foot parcel was purchased from the Industrial District about four months ago. The second piece was acquired Tuesday.

Patten announced at the meeting that papers were signed to purchase the approximately 41,300 square feet of land belonging to Decker Logging. Patton estimates the deal will close by February.

The third piece, the city-owned land, will have to go through a road abandonment process before acquisition can occur. The Dakota Avenue right-of-way runs between the Industrial District parcel on the east and the purchased Decker Logging land on the west. The Second Street right-of-way runs past the Lincoln County Health Center on the east.

The process involves the hospital presenting a petition for road abandonment and the council holding a public hearing on the issue, according to Thede. Afterward, the council will vote to approve or deny.

The actual building will be across the street from the current hospital, east of Libby Care Center. St. John’s Conference Center – a former church – and a structure on the Decker property will be torn down. The Industrial District parcel to the east of the new hospital will allow semis and ambulances to have access to the back of the building, separating service and patient traffic.

Last August, hospital board members voted to take on the $36 million project, citing that it was the most viable way to address space and infrastructure issues. While other location ideas were introduced, board members made it clear that they wanted the site to be near the current hospital.