The saga of “the new” Sonoma Valley Hospital is finally nearing its end. The hospital is ready to showcase its new wing with a celebratory debut from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.
On its path to this moment, Sonoma Valley Hospital crossed both rocky roads and periods of unwavering community support. It is a story 20 years in the making, which at times had a way of tearing the town apart, before a solution could be found to build a safe hospital that the community could support.
It all began with an earthquake down south. On Jan. 17, 1994, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked the Los Angeles neighborhood of Northridge. Between the initial tremor and its myriad aftershocks, 11 hospitals were damaged and thus unable to treat injured residents, adding to the chaos that followed the quake. The following September, the state legislature passed SB 1953, requiring all hospitals to meet rigorous seismic building codes in the sections of the hospital used for emergency care or acute patient services, such as the surgical department.
Like more than 50 percent of the hospitals in California, officials at Sonoma Valley Hospital learned that its three wings did not meet the new state standards after a series of engineering reports completed in 1998. But, hospitals were given until 2005 to make a plan for how to evolve their facility to meet those standards. That deadline was later extended to 2008, and eventually 2013, when the legislature realized it would be impossible for many of California’s cash-strapped district hospitals, like Sonoma, to retrofit or rebuild in time.
When the engineering report came out, Sonoma Valley Hospital was facing difficult financial times, and knew there was no money to tackle this expensive problem. Officials turned to Sutter Health Systems to operate the district-owned hospital, and the Sonoma Valley Health Care District board signed a management contract that required Sutter to operate the hospital, assume the hospital’s $9 million in debt and build a new facility in compliance with SB 1953.
The partnership got off to a rocky start and by 2001, Sutter announced it would not build a new hospital, citing the limited land available at the hospital’s current site on Andrieux Street. A new hospital would require more acres, Sutter said. The management agreement fizzled out in 2002, the same year that the hospital went to the community for the first of many rounds of taxpayer support.
That March, voters overwhelmingly passed a $130 parcel tax to boost the hospital’s bottom line by $2 million a year, enough to give administrators time to pull it out of the financial hole that nearly bankrupt the hospital in the wake of the partnership with Sutter.
After a few years of fighting to keep the hospital out of the red, the board and newly hired CEO Bob Kowal again set their sights on a new hospital building. A variety of architects had studied the hospital and agreed with Sutter’s assessment that the Andrieux Street site was too small to build on. A 43-member facilities study group was formed to consider alternative options from the community and Bay Area architects. Thinking that the hospital would have to relocate, Kowal found four properties that could hold the new 150,000-square-foot facility with 70 beds, but not one of the landowners was interested in selling.