June 02, 2002 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE — A general surgeon plans to open a practice July 1 in the Wallowa Valley Mall building at Southwest Greenwood and First streets.

Dr. Robert Berecz of John Day will be paying rent to the Wallowa County Health Care District for his office space.

The health care district will spend $165,000 to purchase a half-interest in the mall building from Oveson Ranch. The other owner will be the Wallowa County Education Service District.

The service district has been leasing space in the building for its offices. The purchase and resulting asset ownership by both districts is expected to result in significant long-term cost savings compared to renting space, Wallowa Memorial Hospital Administrator Larry Davy said.

The ESD has a purchase option that it plans to exercise in June. The option allows for an assignee as a partner. Neither the ESD, nor the health district needed the entire building, but it made sense for them to share it, Davy said.

The long list of surgical procedures new to the area that Dr. Berecz will provide include gastroscopies, colonoscopies and bowel resections, laproscopic gall bladder removal and mastectomies.

Grande Ronde Hospital is interested in Berecz providing call relief for surgeons in La Grande, Davy said.

In addition to providing new services, a general surgeon can also be an economic benefit to the hospital and the community Davy said. This will help make the health care district more financially stable so taxpayers will not be paying so much, the administrator said.

Voters in the past approved a 10-year tax levy from which the health district began receiving money this year. Next year the district is expected to receive $790,000. The district's goal is to become self-sufficient before the end of the 10-year period, and not have to tax residents for the full period, Davy said.

With growing technology, there is no space available in the hospital building for a surgeon's office, Davy said. There is other space in the mall building, so other tenants will remain. The rent income will cover maintenance and improvements to the building, he said.

Both the ESD and health district boards have agreed to leave the property on the tax rolls, Davy said.

Another physician new to the area by summer will be Dr. Renee Grandi, a family practice and obstetrics physician. She plans to begin practice by mid-July after finishing her residency at Colville, Wash.

The health district is working on having a second family practice physician in the county by the summer of 2003.