By Brad Hicks

The process of bringing a new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Erwin took another step forward last week, as local officials lent their approval to a document detailing how the facility will be situated on the property previously selected for its construction.

During a special-called meeting held Thursday, July 13, the Erwin Planning Commission unanimously approved the site plan for the new hospital, which will be located along Temple Hill Road.

Bill Alton, Mountain States Health Alliance vice president of facilities and construction, told the commission prior to its vote that the replacement hospital will measure around 40,000 square feet with medical offices attached for outpatient services. The hospital itself will have a total of 20 beds – 10 for the facility’s emergency department and 10 for inpatient services.

“I think it’s going to be a nice facility with the stone and things that are on it,” Alton said to the commission following its vote. “It’s really going to have a nice presence out there on that location.”

Alton added MSHA officials completed their due diligence before submitting the site plan to the Erwin Planning Commission for its consideration.

“We’ve worked with the city, and I think they’ve had an opportunity to review our drawings, layout and the elevations that the facility will be at,” Alton said. “We’ve looked at all of the regulatory mandates. I think we meet all of those for a healthcare facility. Our intent is to meet all regulatory requirements and mandates from the city.”

Alton said MSHA officials also worked with Erwin Utilities to ensure that adequate sewer and alterations to provide the utilities necessary for the facility were addressed in the site plan drawings.

MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which for 60 years had operated as a publicly-owned community hospital, became official in November 2013 after months of discussion and review. A caveat of MSHA’s acquisition agreement was the construction of a new hospital within Erwin’s municipal limits. A visioning committee tasked with determining the size of the new facility and the scope of the services it would offer was formed and began meeting after the acquisition was made official.

In July 2015, MSHA closed on its purchase of the little more than 40 acres just off the Jackson Love Highway Exit that will serve as the site of the new hospital.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UCMH. A Certificate of Need is a state permit for the establishment or modification of a health care institution, facility, or service at a designated location, according to MSHA.

The acquisition of the Certificate of Need cleared the way for MSHA to proceed with bringing a replacement UCMH to Unicoi County.

The architect for the UCMH replacement project is Earl Swensson Associates, and the construction firm previously selected is Layton Construction. Representatives from both firms were present for last week’s meeting of the Erwin Planning Commission.

MSHA has announced that a groundbreaking ceremony for the new hospital will be held on July 26 beginning at 11 a.m. at 2030 Temple Hill Road.

MSHA officials expect construction work to begin soon after the groundbreaking and projects that the new UCMH will open its doors in the fall of 2018.

“We’re just excited that you’re here and going to break ground,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said to Alton just before the commission’s vote.

Along with a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient acute-care services, the new facility will offer patients the same services offered by the current UCMH. Alton said these services include outpatient diagnostics, adding the diagnostic equipment at the new UCMH will be among some of the best with the MSHA system.

“This community will get some really top-notch healthcare going forward out of that facility,” Alton said. “You get great care now, but I think the ability to diagnose the health issues for the people that show up there will be even better.”

If the facility is to expand in the future, this growth will be submitted in a separate set of plans to be put before the Erwin Planning Commission, Alton said.

Roland Bailey, who chairs the Erwin Planning Commission and previously chaired the UCMH Board of Control, commended the work of UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll, who was present for last week’s meeting, as well as the staff at UCMH. He also said MSHA has raised the quality of local health care since acquiring UCMH nearly four years ago, adding the new facility will be a “crown jewel” of Unicoi County.

“Thank you guys for being here,” Bailey said to Alton and other MSHA officials present. “This has been a long time coming.”

Alton said MSHA shares the excitement of local officials.

“It’s going to be a great facility,” Alton said to the commission. “It will serve this community … We’re planning to grow, and some of you know where the growth is going to be that we have planned for that facility, so it’s very expandable. It’s going to be, I think, a great asset to this community.”