February 25, 2003 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE — The Wallowa County Health Care District board on Monday took the next step toward determining if it can build a new hospital within a couple years.

The board authorized administrator Larry Davy to arrange to have a third party conduct a feasibility study. The board thinks a new hospital is needed and can be built without additional taxes.

Now, they'll see if an independent firm will reach the same conclusion. The study will include an independent financial analysis and a look at demographics to answer such questions as whether the projected local population would warrant a 30,000 to 40,000-square-foot hospital over the long term.

Such studies are typically required by loan guarantors. Davy hopes to have a study lined up by week's end.

The community assessment stage would include public comment.

Davy presented an architectural/construction timeline in order to have ground broken by the spring of 2004 and a new hospital ready to occupy by the fall of 2005.

Application will be made to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Housing and Urban Development to act as a loan guarantor.

The immediate hurdle is to find a building site, typically required by clearinghouses that prioritize grant funding.

The present hospital, built in 1950, is landlocked and can't be expanded. The district is looking for a 10-acre site with room for technology expansion, parking, and medical clinics that may eventually want to be there.

Two local contractors who attended Monday's meeting applauded the concept. Louis Perry of LD Perry Inc. encouraged the use of local contractors, but questioned if they had the manpower to handle the $10-11 million project. John Hillock of Enterprise Electric said he supports the project even if it wouldn't bring his firm any more work.

Board members indicated their intent to structure the project to include the local workforce as much as possible.

Construction financing is expected to be funded by grants, donations and the hospital's bottom line. Last year the hospital made a gain on operations.

The monthly income statement showed that over the past seven months the $616,071 bottom line gain is nearly double the $314,885 budgeted for the year.