JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – Once the municipality that complained the longest and hardest about the loss of local hospital services, Fort Erie is now the first to make a financial commitment to build a new, state-of-the-art facility in south-west Niagara Falls.
On Monday evening, town councillors voted unanimously to pledge $3 million toward the cost of building a yet-to-be approved South Niagara hospital.
That makes the town the first municipality to make a financial commitment to the project, which was recommended by Niagara Health System supervisor Kevin Smith last fall.
An emotional Mayor Doug Martin, who had to choke back tears while speaking during the council meeting and afterward to reporters, said the move will send a strong message to provincial Liberal government, which has yet to get behind the construction of a new hospital to replace aging facilities in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Welland and Port Colborne.
“The residents of Fort Erie deserve a new, state-of-the-art hospital that will provide them with excellent and accessible health care for the foreseeable future,” said Martin.
“I am confident that Premier Wynne and Minister Matthews will see this as another demonstration of community support for the new hospital and as a result (will) move closer to approving this much needed new facility.”
In attendance during Tuesday’s council meeting were Sue Matthews, acting president and chief administrative officer of the Niagara Health System, and other NHS representatives.
During a media scrum after the vote, Matthews hugged Martin and thanked him and the rest of council for their continued support.
While Matthews noted there are still many steps to be undertaken before the government could be in a position to approve a new hospital, the pledge of financial support is a vote of confidence.
“It’s amazing. It’s absolutely phenomenal,” said Matthews.
“For the Town of Fort Erie to come forward (with a donation like this) it shows the changes that we’ve made in the relationship between the Niagara Health System and the Town of Fort Erie. It just shows how we’re all on the right page moving forward for health care in Niagara.”
The relationship wasn’t always so good.
Many Fort Erie residents and politicians resented the creation of the Niagara Health System back in 2000, when most of Niagara’s acute-care hospitals were brought under one umbrella.
That, they argued was the beginning of a slow and steady erosion of services at Douglas Memorial Hospital.
The complaints from Fort Erie reached a fever pitch in 2008 after the NHS made public its plans to close emergency departments and operating rooms at Douglas Memorial.
The appointment of Smith as hospital supervisor in 2011, however, marked a turning point. The NHS began a new effort to reach out to the public in an effort to improve a reputation battered by years of political battles and a major outbreak superbug outbreak at three of its largest hospitals, which garnered national attention.
Smith began formulating recommendations on how best to move the NHS forward.
Among his recommendations was a plan to build a new South Niagara hospital. With an estimated cost somewhere north of $800-million, the new hospital would still be cheaper than the more than $1 billion that would be needed to upgrade existing hospitals in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Welland and Port Colborne.
The mayors of those four communities, together with the heads of council in Pelham and Wainfleet, joined together at Smith’s request to look at possible locations.
After numerous meetings, the six mayors eventually recommended building in the area of Lyons Creek Road and the QEW in Niagara Falls.
Earlier this year, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati announced his city had secured a donation of land at that location from the Grassl Family. Last month, Diodati and other dignitaries unveiled a large billboard sign marking the site, in part to publicly thanks the donors.
Fort Erie Coun. John Hill, chairman of the town’s finance committee, brought the motion forward Tuesday night to pledge $3 million on behalf of the town.
“We recognize that the new hospital has yet to be announced by the minister, however, we feel it is critical to demonstrate to Minister Matthews and all of the Niagara region that Fort Erie is on board and prepared to back up their support for this new hospital with a substantial financial commitment,” Hill said.
The terms of payments will be subject to the 2014 budget deliberations. It’s likely the town will spread the payments out over a period of 20 to 25 years, as is typical in such projects.
Town staff are recommending council start setting money away in a special reserve account starting next year in preparation for fulfilling its pledge if and when the project wins approval.
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