Terrace B.C. megaproject a go

Projects like the new Mills Memorial Hospital typically take seven years altogether, but de Jong said procurement could start next year.

STAFF PHOTO A congratulatory hug was shared by Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc and senior Northern Health Authority administrator Chris Simms at Mills Memorial Hospital Feb. 28

It’s not a multi-billion liquefied natural gas plant, nor a port development nor a modernized smelter.

But a new Mills Memorial Hospital, announced last week, is Terrace’s own megaproject which will provide construction jobs and afterward highly-skilled positions for medical professionals.

And now regional health care officials are awaiting a date for a first meeting with counterparts in Victoria to start the detailed work which will lead to a project estimated at $362 million and which could take up to seven years before a first patient is admitted.

That anticipated meeting follows the Feb. 28  announcement by provincial finance minister Mike de Jong, made at a Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon that a new Mills will replace the current facility, now approaching 60 years old and inadequate to meet current health care standards.

The luncheon crowd gave de Jong a standing ovation as he delivered the news.

“I can confirm that there is money for a new hospital within the fiscal plan,” he said of a list of major public sector expenditures developed by  the provincial government.

While the announcement marks the beginning of what will be a new Mills, it ends a campaign stretching back to the early part of the decade to convince the province that the current facility, named after pioneering physician Dr. Stanley Mills, was obsolete and could not meet modern day medical standards.

The chamber of commerce luncheon was arranged at the last minute and was officially to consist of de Jong speaking about his budget, introduced in the legislature Feb. 21.

Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc had a seat in the legislature itself to hear de Jong deliver the budget, and when no mention was made of a new Mills, she said she’d resume lobbying efforts with cabinet ministers. That meant de Jong’s announcement took her by surprise.

“Yes, but a good surprise,” said Leclerc, who added she thought it would have been Premier Christy Clark herself who would have come to Terrace to make the announcement.

But Leclerc did say it was de Jong who was in Terrace last fall to tour Mills, see its inadequacies firsthand, and meet with health care officials and members of city council.

The announcement was so closely guarded that even Harry Nyce, the chair of the North West Regional Hospital District, the regional taxation authority which had been pressing hard for a new Mills, had no idea it was going to happen until the morning of the chamber luncheon.

That’s when the hospital district was contacted and asked to provide a quote for the official provincial press release.

Although the Northern Health Authority submitted an initial concept plan several years ago to replace Mills, it submitted a revised one just last month.

The first submission carried with it a construction price tag of $430 million for not only a new structure, but one with sufficient services for a new Mills to act as a high level trauma centre.

Concept plans are just that – a concept of what a new hospital, staffed to function as a high-level regional trauma centre, would look like and of its size and a general idea of costs.

It’s understood nothing has changed in the revised concept plan save for the price which is now lower at $362 million. That’s because construction costs, including the labour component, are less than even two years ago because projected large scale projects elsewhere have failed to materialize, meaning companies will now fine tune bids to get work.

Once the revised concept plan is approved, a date for which is unknown, the emphasis shifts to a business plan, the stage at which the exact size and shape and costs are laid out.

That’s not expected to happen until the fall and its development could take anywhere from a year to 18 months.

Typically public sector projects of this size could take seven years from start to finish with actual construction taking up approximately half of that time. But de Jong was optimistic, saying procurement, an advanced stage at which qualified companies are sought who could submit bids, could take place next year.

He also said those who would work in the new hospital would be key players in how it was designed with an eye to how it would function.

“This is really a unique opportunity that only comes along every 60 years,” said de Jong in citing the average age range at which hospitals are  replaced in B.C.

The size of the project is such that it will be the largest direct provincial government expenditure in the history of the northwest.

The finance minister directed credit for convincing the government a new Mills is needed to the people who work there now, to the city council and to BC Liberal Skeena candidate Ellis Ross.

“He’s been smart and very strategic about how to convey to the folks in Victoria the importance of the project,” said de Jong of Ross.

Leclerc said a new Mills will attract not only new medical professionals, including doctors and specialists, to Terrace for long periods but it will keep locals from leaving.

“You know that a generation of people left Terrace in the 2000s. And now they’re returning,” she said.

“Northern Health has been very smart. They take our people here now and send them away for training and they return,” Leclerc continued.

She said a new hospital, upcoming renovations to the North West Community College trades building and an extensive renovation of the city’s aquatic centre are positioning the city well for the years ahead.

Leclerc’s theme of a new hospital attracting medical professionals came up the afternoon of the Feb. 28 announcement when de Jong visited Mills and spoke with Northern Health officials there.

“Build it and they will come,” said Dr. Jaco Fourie, the health authority’s regional medical director who plays a key role in recruiting.

Provincial NDP leader John Horgan responded to the announcement by saying he was glad “the finance minister has finally caught up to what New Democrats have been saying for more than six months, that Mills Memorial Hospital needs to be replaced.”

Horgan, while visiting Terrace last August, did say, once elected premier, he’d greenlight a new hospital here.

“While it’s too bad that Christy Clark makes patients wait until just before an election to make these kinds of announcements, I’m glad that northerners are finally able to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and a new hospital is on the horizon,” said Horgan.

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