Enloe touts expansion to skeptics

Hospital officials sang the praises of the planned expansion of Enloe Medical Center at a Sept. 14 meeting, but their mellow, confident presentation wasn’t enough to calm fears of several Avenues neighborhood residents.

The meeting at the Enloe Conference Center, which was unpublicized beyond a mailing to neighborhood residents, consisted of an hour of making a case for the expansion and presenting development plans, followed by an hour of sometimes-contentious questions.

Michael Baird, a physician and Enloe board member, said the 1937 hospital, last expanded in 1979, is so old and rundown that it’s hard to recruit talented, young doctors who have “different expectations” about how up-to-date a facility should be. At the same time, baby boomers increasingly need quality health care.

Called “The Century Project,” the expansion would add a five-story tower, two large parking garages and a central plant to the hospital on The Esplanade, doubling its footprint and spreading into the historic Vecino neighborhood, where it would partially close Magnolia Avenue and take out several houses.

Darby Makel, an engineering firm owner and chairman of the Board of Trustees’ finance committee, said the 20-year project would cost $83 million—about as much as the hospital can afford to borrow and fund-raise without risking its bond rating.

By contrast, he said, it would cost $270 million to build on Bruce Road land the hospital recently sold for $18 million and $284 to expand at the Cohasset home of the former Chico Community Hospital, which Enloe bought out in 1997.

“It’s driven in large part by the numbers,” Makel said. “The difference is absolutely staggering.”

But those numbers were contested by some in the audience, including Barbi Boeger, a neighborhood resident and candidate for Chico City Council. (Candidates John Merz and Andy Holcombe also attended.)

“I’d like to see the justification myself,” Boeger said. “I want to crunch [the numbers] the same way you guys did.”

Baird said the financial study is very complex, and, “There’s a certain amount of this you’re just going to have to take on trust.”

Neighbors’ concerns include traffic, construction noise, the imposition of the new buildings and preserving the character of the John Bidwell-era neighborhood.

Throughout the meeting, some neighbors mumbled their opposition to officials’ statements, and at one point Beverly Robertson, who lives on Arcadian Avenue, interjected: “All this is wonderful, but you don’t seem to care about the neighbors who are already living here.”

Molly Amick, who lives on Citrus Avenue, said hospital administrators are making an “arrogant assumption” if they think citizens’ love for the hospital will trump concerns about the Avenues and The Esplanade. “I know we don’t have presidential salaries in our neighborhood, but we count and our lives count,” she said. “There’s a feeling that this is being rammed down our throats.”

Ken Fleming, who lives on East Sacramento Avenue, told officials the expansion would drive down property values. “Your savings is offset by costs to our neighborhood.”

The draft environmental-impact report for the project will not be ready in October, as optimistically expected. Instead, the city expects it to be out and the subject of public meetings toward the end of 2004.