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River Place will doctor South Hall
Hospital expanding quicker than expected
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The term "River Place" may not mean much right now, but it’s something you’re going to be hearing about a lot over the next few years.

River Place is the name Northeast Georgia Health System has given to its 119-acre property off Thompson Mill Road near Chateau Elan. Eventually, 42 acres of the site will be devoted to the new South Hall hospital campus, which is officially being called Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.

But that project won’t be completed for at least five years. In the meantime, work is already under way on a 12-acre parcel in the front corner of the property. By September 2008, that site will include a three-story, 105,000-square-foot office building called Medical Plaza 1 at River Place.

"This is more than your usual medical office building," said Jim Gardner, chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Health System. "The Urgent Care facility, though not a full ER, will have a higher level of service than Quick Care. And the imaging center will be as capable as what we have in-house at the medical center (in Gainesville)."

The building will also have office space for 40 to 50 physicians in a variety of specialties. And that’s just in phase one.

"The site is preconfigured for two office buildings," Gardner said. "The timetable for starting the second one will depend on the marketplace, as the first building begins to fill up."

This time, the health system will try to stay ahead of the demand. The Braselton Clinic, located just down the road from the hospital site, had to undergo a major expansion only a year after it opened because so many specialists, lacking their own offices in South Hall, wanted to see patients at the clinic part time.

"The growth of patient interest in the Braselton Clinic exceeded our expectations," Gardner said. "We were taken off guard and hadn’t really planned to do an expansion."

The renovation, completed this summer, bought the health system enough time to finish Medical Plaza 1. Braselton Clinic manager Kelley McClure said by the time the new building opens next fall, her practice will be in need of extra room.

"Our space will basically quadruple," she said. "We’re currently serving 70 to 100 patients a day, and that’s just in our internal medicine practice. That doesn’t include the patients seen by about 12 groups of specialists that rotate through here."

When the clinic moves into the new building, most of the specialists will also move, but they’ll have their own offices and will no longer be tenants of the Braselton Clinic. Gardner said the core practice, which currently has two internal medicine doctors, could eventually expand to eight physicians.

"The Braselton Clinic is considered one of the anchor tenants, along with the imaging center and Urgent Care," he said. "Those three combined will take up about half the building."

The rest of the building will allot 1,500 to 1,800 square feet per physician. A consulting firm is already marketing the facility to doctors and helping them design their new offices.

Gardner envisions it as a "seamless experience," in which internal medicine physicians, specialists, and imaging services are all located in one building. It’s a model similar to what’s done at the Longstreet Clinic and Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic in Gainesville.

Gardner said rental rates for the office space will be "very competitive, not high relative to what you’d pay in Atlanta, but inevitably more expensive than for a modular building like the Braselton Clinic."

He added that once the Braselton Clinic’s current home is vacated next year, "it could provide an ideal, low-cost alternative for a pediatrics practice that might not be able to afford space in the Medical Plaza."

He said the goal of the medical plazas is to "create an environment that’s attractive to physicians." Because the new hospital will need a full complement of doctors before it can open, the buildings will serve almost as an incubator for medical talent.

"Those buildings will be like a hospital without beds," Gardner said. "The real key is to grow the medical staff on that campus, which will smooth the transition to a full hospital."

Plans for the hospital are still on the drawing boards. But the health system has already begun grading the entire site.

"We’ve got to do a fair amount of dirt moving to bring the ground level because it slopes away from the road," said Gardner.

With the weather as dry as it has been, the construction work is kicking up some dust. Gardner said that’s unavoidable.

"But we’re trying to be good neighbors and are minimizing the nuisance as much as possible," he said.

Residents of the fast-growing area should brace themselves for more dust in the near future, however. The hospital’s opening is contingent on the Georgia Department of Transportation completing a realignment of Ga. 347, which is tentatively expected to happen by 2012.