THOMSON — Before dirt had even been turned for the new building for University Hospital McDuffie, Jim Davis was already talking about expansion.
Standing on the 40-acre site where officials broke ground Wednesday for a $30 million hospital to replace an aging downtown building, the CEO of University Health Care System said it would be a 25-bed facility with the capacity to go up to 100 beds.
Looking at Thomson Mayor Ken Usry in the first row of the tent at the ceremony, Davis said, “Mayor Usry, if you can grow this place, we’ll grow with you.”
“That’s our intent,” Usry replied.
The numbers are in their favor. Moving the hospital from downtown Thomson five miles, to just north of Interstate 20 at the intersection of Georgia 17 and the Thomson Bypass, opens it up to a greater number of people and towns within 20 minutes away.
“When you build a building like this you look at a 20-minute drive time (as the draw),” Davis said. “Obviously you can go a long ways on I-20 in 20 minutes.”
That would also bring in some of the fastest-growing census tracts in the Augusta area. Grovetown, for instance, increased its population 82 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to data analysis by The Augusta Chronicle. The population in Evans jumped 50 percent in that time period, the analysis found.
“We’re certainly going to hope that we get some of that western Columbia County growth coming this direction” to the hospital, Davis said. “But there are communities to the north and to the east of here that would still find this to be very close.”
Thomson itself has been growing that direction for the past 25-30 years, Usry said. The interchange where the hospital will go was aided by water and sewage provided by the city, he said.
Preserving a hospital in McDuffie was looking impossible when the facility was rapidly losing money and the future looked grim, said William Doupé, then chairman of the Hospital Authority of McDuffie County and a board member of University Hospital McDuffie.
“It is extremely important that we keep a high-quality medical facility close to our care,” he said. “I firmly believed, as did the other members on the board, that keeping a hospital in McDuffie County would save lives. For us it became a public safety priority.”
And it will be important for the future health of the county, which in the 2013 County Health Rankings ranked 156 out of 159 counties in Georgia. The biggest problems in McDuffie County are diabetes and high blood pressure and the hospital can make a difference with those patients, said Sandra McVicker, CEO of University Hospital McDuffie.
“That’s what all of this is about is a new hospital and new beginnings so that we can definitely improve the health care of our county and our surrounding counties as well,” she said. “I think you’re going to see that score going up in the next five years.”
Where the new entirely University-funded hospital will sit, on a hill overlooking the intersection and close to I-20, will also provide it with much greater visibility, said Kyle Howell, vice president of support and facilities services at University Hospital.
“You can see it coming from all directions,” he said. “It’s a great site.”
Staff Writer Sandy Hodson contributed to this report.