New Hospital's Final Number: $41.8 Million

By JULIA WELLS

The new number is $41.8 million. The final number. Leaders at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital now say this is what they must raise or borrow in order to replace the decrepit building that houses the Island's only hospital.

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"I think this is the number we are really going to run with," said hospital chief executive officer Tim Walsh this week. "Unfortunately I would have liked to see it come in a little lower than that, but this is it - this is what we are going to work with."

Hospital trustees learned the news at a board meeting held over the Memorial Day weekend.

Formally launched late last summer and the most ambitious capital project in the history of the Vineyard, the plan to build a new hospital has proceeded in fits and starts. And the asking price has changed more than once.

In August of 2003 when the plan was first unveiled, the cost was estimated at $30 million. A few months later, as the plan took shape, the price tag went up - way up - to $50 million.

Sticker shock reverberated around the Vineyard community and hospital leaders vowed to bring it down. This week they kept that promise.

The $41.8 million includes $1.2 million for renovating the existing hospital building, and it also includes a five per cent contingency, Mr. Walsh said. The per-square-foot price for the new hospital building is $355, he said. The new building is currently planned at 89,000 square feet. The per-square-foot price for renovating the old hospital building now stands at $125.

Mr. Walsh said senior managers and hospital trustees will now undertake the arduous task of examining financial feasibility. "We are going to look at our debt capacity and our ability to handle it," Mr. Walsh said.

Year-end financial statements released by the hospital last week show that the hospital is operating in the black - even on a combined basis - but is also carrying a medium-to heavy debt load. Three years ago the hospital took on fresh debt when it bought back a bond that was used to build Windemere. The entire campus was mortgaged to pay $1.5 million for a $2.5 million bond. Windemere continues to depend on hospital resources to remain viable, although the drain is now less than it was a year ago.

A special board meeting is now set for the end of June, when trustees will get a look at the final determination of need (DON) application, which must be filed with the state by July 1. DON applications are required by the state department of public health for all capital projects over $10 million. The application includes detailed reporting requirements for the specifications of the project - including the financing plan.

Mr. Walsh said a community forum is planned for shortly after the board meeting. No date had been set yet for the forum at press time.

The building project has gone through a series of changes. The original plan called for razing the existing hospital in phases and building a new, three-story structure with an emergency room and a complete range of services including radiology, laboratory, surgery, obstetrics, acute care and intensive care. A separate professional building to house doctors' offices was also planned.

At a public forum last winter, Island residents were critical of the plan to have the hospital face Eastville avenue. There was also some criticism of the plan to build a separate professional building for doctors, and many said that they were stunned at the $50 million price tag.

A revised plan now on deck calls for building a new hospital that will be married to the rear portion of the old 1929 cottage hospital. The new plan calls for a building that faces Beach Road instead of Eastville avenue, and it will not include a new professional building to house doctors' offices. Instead, the existing hospital would be renovated for use as office space, administration and other ancillary services including day care, visiting nurses and complementary medicine.

"We have built the foundation for our broader vision - a brand new hospital," wrote hospital board president John Ferguson in an op-ed piece that is published on the Commentary Page of this morning's Gazette. "We've always known that we could not realistically ask for support for the construction of a new facility until we proved that we were also good fiscal managers. . . . We are ready to begin anew," he also wrote.

The architect for the project is Mark Rowland, an architect with Thomas, Miller & Partners in Tennessee.