By Teresa Auch Schultz, Post-Tribune

VALPARAISO -- Work on the new Porter hospital will get started next spring, but the opening will be delayed by 10 months from the original plans, an official said at a meeting giving details on the project.

Before construction on infrastructure begins, though, the 103 acres on the northwest corner of U.S. 6 and Indiana 49 need to be cleared, said Jonathan Nalli, president of Porter hospital.

"This is where our future will be," Nalli told a group of hospital employees during the Monday meeting.

Concept pictures showed the new hospital's outer design of brick and glass. The hospital will have six floors with the potential for another two floors to be added on top and two floors to be added to the back of the structure. The new building will almost double the space of the current hospital from 250,000 square feet to 430,000 square feet. Departments, such as cardiology, that are split up right now will be grouped together in the new building.

The $210 million project had been delayed by a lawsuit and other issues, but officials announced Friday they had finally purchased the land. It was supposed to be completed in 2011, as required by a contract signed by the new owner, Community Health Systems, when it bought the hospital from Porter County. However, Nalli said hospital officials talked with county commissioners and agreed that the delays were outside the control of the hospital.

The finish date is now set for the summer of 2012, Nalli said.

The original cost estimate remains the same, though, he said. Nalli also pointed out that current plans for 261 beds, all in private rooms, exceeds the agreement the hospital has with the county to have 225 beds. Plans also call for an increase for both intensive care beds and emergency room beds.

The new hospital is the only one in the county to emerge after ideas for four hospitals were discussed several years ago, all by separate companies. Donald Coffin, associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest, said a new hospital makes sense for the growing Porter County but that because it is replacing a current facility, the region likely won't see a huge change from it.

"The fact that they are going to be presumably cutting edge with technology may mean they will be able to attract more physicians and more patient referrals," Coffin said. "But keep in mind to some extent ... if they attract more physicians and more patient referrals, they'll be attracting them from other hospitals in the region."

The hospital has said it plans to hire about 120 new employees, in all departments, during the first two years of operation. However, Coffin said, that number is relatively small when compared to the 30,000 medical jobs in the region. He also added that, again, some of the new hires might come from other local hospitals that are seeing a reduction in business. Any increase can be seen as a positive, though, Coffin said.

"At this point in time, even a small contribution is worth having," he said.

The hospital has already seen an increase of business in the past few years, Nalli said. Although Porter hospital's market share in its area, which includes Porter County and parts of Lake, LaPorte, Jasper and Newton counties, had gone down for several years starting in 2000, it's gone up 4 percent since 2007, Nalli said.

Janet Brown, dean of the Valparaiso University College of Nursing and a Porter hospital board member, said any future growth would likely depend on what patients seek. If they chose other hospitals over Porter because of the lack of private rooms, for instance, the new hospital would likely attract them back. The hospital has also started offering new services that it wasn't before, so patients won't have to travel out of the county, she said.

Nalli said the hospital's recent program for non-invasive hip replacement surgery has already started to attract people from not just the region but other states.

Nalli said officials plan on selling the current building but they haven't talked yet about when that process will start.

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