What price Enloe expansion?

Hospital, neighbors go toe to toe on plans to grow the medical facility

BIG PLANS Enloe officials Phil Wolfe, Dr. Jeff Lobosky and Dan Neumeister listen as Ed McLaughlin (inset) argues against allowing Enloe Medical Center to expand into its neighborhood.

BIG PLANS Enloe officials Phil Wolfe, Dr. Jeff Lobosky and Dan Neumeister listen as Ed McLaughlin (inset) argues against allowing Enloe Medical Center to expand into its neighborhood.

Photo By Tom Angel

Evolution: Opened in 1913, Enloe moved from its original location on Flume Street to a newly constructed building on The Esplanade between Fifth and Sixth avenues in 1937. In the mid-1960s it undertook its first expansion, and in 1980 it was remodeled again. Since then the hospital has steadily expanded into the neighborhood, buying properties in a piecemeal fashion that has not required city review. In the 1990s it crossed The Esplanade when it purchased a church that it turned into a conference center.

A three-hour workshop before the Chico City Council this week on the proposed expansion of Enloe Medical Center produced a philosophical debate that resulted in a series of clichàs on where, how and why the hospital should grow and the dire consequences if it does not.

Enloe officials warned the medical facility is at an important crossroads, the sky is falling and that there are no rooms at the inn because the place is bursting at the seams.

Opponents, mostly Enloe’s neighbors or its employees who have fought for union representation, argued that city approval of a remodeled facility will industrialize the residential neighborhood, adversely impact Chico’s beloved Esplanade and reward an uncaring employer that does not negotiate in good faith.

On Feb. 22 the council chambers were packed, with late-comers forced to stand shoulder to shoulder along the walls and still others pushed into an adjacent conference room to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. The audience was pretty well divided between supporters and opponents.

Before the meeting really got started, City Manager Tom Lando warned that the issue at hand dealt with land-use matters and that testimony about labor concerns—Enloe has battled a number of union organization attempts in recent years—would not be heard. But a number of speakers brought up labor issues anyway.

(The city does not have jurisdiction over the hospital’s employee relations, but a couple of councilmembers noted after the meeting that eventually the city will have to negotiate a building contract with the Enloe and thus its record on negotiations may well be relevant.)

Last April Enloe submitted its plans for an $85 million expansion to city planning staff. Now at issue is how the expansion will affect the venerable neighborhood that surrounds the facility. The project includes the construction of a parking structure at Fifth and Magnolia avenues and the closing of Magnolia between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

But such details, while mentioned in passing, gave way to whether Enloe should expand at its current location by approximately 173,000 square feet or look to property it attained when it purchased Community Hospital on Cohasset Road five years ago. That location, Enloe neighbors argued, is better located because of its access to nearby Highway 99.

Enloe officials said building at that location would cost $284 million. When it purchased Community, it closed the hospital facilities, saying there was not enough demand to justify keeping it open. But just a few years later, patient demand is driving the need to expand. That ironic history was not lost on opponents.

Dr. Peter Magnusson, a cardiologist who sits on the hospital’s Board of Trustees, spoke first and warned that in its present squeezed state, Enloe is having trouble attracting young and talented physicians to replace those who came here 20 years ago and are now ready to retire.

Enloe’s chief executive officer, Phil Wolfe, said expanding in its present location is the hospital’s only option. In July, 2003, Enloe sold property off Bruce Road in east Chico that was once included in plans to build a whole new facility, but that project, Wolfe said, would have cost an estimated $270 million.

Dan Neumeister, the hospital’s chief operations officer, addressed the council and acknowledged the neighbors’ concerns.

“We recognize an expansion does impact the neighborhood and will forever change it,” he said.

But he also said the hospital had talked with neighbors and was willing to make some changes to address things like landscaping, sign design, noise and traffic. And, he added, noting the “hassle factor” neighbors face, the estimated time to complete the expansion has been reduced from 20 to three years.

Enloe neurologist Dr. Jeff Lobosky, who described himself as someone who works in the trenches, warned that without the expansion the community’s quality of life will suffer.

“Is this a Chicken Little scenario?” he asked the council rhetorically. “I’m here to tell you the sky is falling.”

He said he’d come to Chico 23 years ago “to practice big-town medicine in a small town.”

But last week, he said, the trauma center had to close temporarily because “there was no room at the inn. And this is becoming more frequent.” (Four other expansion supporters used the “no room at the inn” metaphor during the well-organized presentation to the council.)

“We are at a crossroad crisis,” Lobosky said. “We can either move forward or fall back.”

Opponents like neighbor Ed McLaughlin accused Enloe administration of having a “credibility gap.”

He told of less-than-receptive early public meetings hosted by Enloe, including one at which he was told he could not hand out informational flyers at a public meeting on private property—at least until he threatened to go to the press.

McLaughlin, representing the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association, has long objected to Enloe’s helicopter ambulance service that is stationed on the building’s roof. He says the flights do not always involve life-or-death situations and have on occasion been used to search for a missing man in the Mendocino National Forest and to respond to a television being tossed over the edge of Lookout Point near Paradise.

There were 807 helicopter flights last year.

Expansion opponent Ken Fleming said it was the city’s responsibility to get reliable data on the needs for the project, noting it is probably the most important land use decision in Chico for the next 20 years.

“We’re not building a Wal-Mart here,” he said.

He also called for outside review of both the EIR and the nonprofit hospital’s financial ability to carry out the plans.

Nearly 40 people then gave their opinions, which were almost evenly divided between support and opposition.

After the public hearing, the council members took about 15 minutes to air their reactions, saying they hoped the issue would be played out in a civil manner and that more alternatives must be offered in the EIR, so anticipated impacts to neighborhood can be mitigated. Included in those options should be alternative sites, the council said.

Councilman Larry Wahl will not participate in the process because his residence is close enough to the hospital that the expansion, or its denial, could affect Wahl’s property values.

City staff is now preparing a draft environmental-impact report that will be circulated in the spring for 60 days to collect public input. That input will be included in a final EIR that will go first to the Chico Planning Commission and then to the Chico City Council for final approval, possibly by late summer.