Under the bright-eyed gaze of a giant, 20-foot-tall newborn baby, officials and staff at Community Medical Center gathered Friday afternoon to break ground on a new building designed to care for the tiniest of patients.

"We've always been the leader for women's and children's services for western Montana, but this project really puts us at the cutting edge in the Northwest for children and women's centers," said Steve Carlson, president and CEO of Community Medical Center. "This is a day we've all been waiting on for a long time, so we're very happy to finally be here."

As dozens of hospital employees and community residents looked on, Carlson joined a group of children and fellow hospital administrators and staff in turning the first shovels of dirt in an expanse of grass located just south of Community's main entrance.

Over the coming 18 months, that blank lawn will be transformed into a new, 22,000-square-foot wing of the hospital. Together with the existing 15,000-square-foot obstetrical and newborn care unit, the wing will be known as the Women's and Newborn Center.

Built at an estimated cost of $17.8 million, the center will be outfitted with the latest in technology and creature comforts for the care of mothers and newborns, and in particular those babies born prematurely or with other health problems.

"This is a cornerstone of the mission of this hospital, to provide excellent care for mothers and their infants," said Dr. Dan Harper, a retired pediatrician who helped found Community's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in 1976. "Over the years, there have been at least three major, expensive remodelings. Each has been helpful, but they've never solved the underlying problem of inadequate space. ... Now this (problem) will be solved."

"This cements our position as the cornerstone for tertiary women's health in western Montana," added Dr. Gregory Utter, a perinatologist at Community. "Missoula and western Montana needed this to happen, Community staff earned it and, most of all, our moms and babies earned it."

The construction project, which will include a complete remodel of the existing NICU and birthing unit, will be carried out in three phases, with the first phase - a new postpartum wing - to be completed in approximately 12 months.

The entire project was designed and engineered by Ellerbe Becket of Minneapolis and OZ Architects of Missoula. Construction will be carried out by Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie and Quality Construction of Missoula.

Although construction on the new wing nominally began Friday, fundraising for the project is still ongoing. Anne Timmons, chairwoman of the fundraising campaign, said that $4.6 million has been raised for the project so far, out of a goal of

$7.5 million. The remaining $10.3 million is to be funded by a combination of bonds, investment by Community Medical Center, and private and federal grants.

On Friday, as the children participating in the groundbreaking continued turning a small pile of dirt, Timmons announced a $100,000 challenge gift from Kim and Dirk Visser of Missoula.

"Our little diggers are sticking with it," joked Timmons, "so we hope you'll stick with it as well and see this project through."

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358,  jnickell@missoulian.com or on NickellBag.com.


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