By Sarah Elmquist Squires

Managing Editor

Friday will mark five years to the day since a handful of community members concerned about health care services in Fremont County gathered in the meeting room at Brown Sugar Coffee Roastery. After laying out the issues – services being cut, relocated, eliminated – they looked around the table and asked: “What are we going to do?” 

In the five years since, they’ve raised $54 million for Riverton’s new hospital. Across the nation, rural health care services have diminished, with folks having to travel farther and farther to have babies or set broken bones. But the Riverton Medical District (RMD) group has held fast and made Fremont County one of just a handful of communities in the country getting ready to usher in a brand-new hospital. Last week, after meticulous design revisions covering every inch of the 60,000-70,000 square-foot facility, the nonprofit board looked at one another with bated breath and realized: The designs are done. 

Now, the race is on.


Pulling together the millions needed, from grants to the biggest USDA Rural Development Community Facility Loan ever granted in Wyoming, has been no small feat, and some of the regulations tied to the state and federal funds will make the next few weeks a busy time for RMD leaders, engineers, and contractors. 

RMD Board member Vivian Watkins explained that plans are underway for a groundbreaking celebration – which will be an entire weekend of community festivities – but the terms of the USDA loan require every penny to be in the bank before construction begins. Once the final changes to the design documents are completed, expected at the end of the month, bids for subcontractors will be let. With inflation driving up the costs of construction projects nationwide, in the event the RMD bids come in high, the group will apply for inflationary funds set aside by the Wyoming State Legislature. The deadline for those applications is August 4, making for a tight turnaround if hospital bids follow national inflationary trends. 

Add to that the discovery of an underground irrigation ditch running through the construction site that needs to be relocated, and the need for the business park to add about four feet of fill to level out the building pad, and you’ve got a nailbiter. But the RMD group has faced five years’ of challenges and remained undaunted, and they know they’re tiptoeing toward the finish line. 

“Every time we break down a wall, there’s a celebration,” Watkins said of the RMD group. They’ve all been there since that first meeting five years ago: Dr. Eric Ridgeway, Dr. Roger Gose, Chair Corte McGuffrey, Travis Koehn, Cindy McDonald, Mick Pryor, Susan Goetzinger, and Watkins herself. “We’re all volunteers; we don’t have an executive secretary that we hand off documents to,” she explained. When applying for multi-million-dollar grants or dealing with complex federal regulations and the facility designs themselves, they rely on one another’s strengths to get the work done. But despite all they’ve poured into the project, RMD leaders say the results are due to the support of the community, and this nonprofit hospital belongs to everyone. 

When all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, the groundbreaking ceremony won’t be an hour of “dignitaries with gold shovels,” Watkins said. Instead, it will be a bring-your-own shovel event, asking community members to all be a part of the hallmark moment. The festivities will include a 5K run and golf tournament, and family friendly events all weekend long. And, when the construction is complete, it’ll be a bring-your-own-scissors ribbon cutting, with the ribbon wrapping all around the hospital and everyone invited to help be part of its opening together. “It will be a day of celebration for this community for hanging in there for us,” Watkins said of the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting plans. 

Background: Bring on the babies

When the RMD group first met five years ago, it was under a different moniker: Save our Riverton Hospital. They wanted to see whether Riverton could buck the trend of diminished rural health care services, and before long, they realized they’d have to do it from scratch. 

Through major fundraising efforts, including a Wyoming Loan and Investment Board $10 million grant and the $37 million low-interest USDA Rural Development Community Facility loan, RMD raised the $54 million needed for the new hospital. They secured a 12-acre plot that will provide for future growth in the Eastern Shoshone Business Park – across from the Hampton Inn – including acreage donated by the Business Park, and got to work with Erdman engineers and construction manager Sampson Construction out of Cheyenne, and unveiled preliminary designs earlier this year. 

The new hospital will be affiliated with Billings Clinic, and to perfect the designs, RMD went through countless meetings, doing visual walk-throughs with Billings’ department heads to ensure every crook and cranny of the new building will fit the needs of each special service. 

Take the nursery. The ability to deliver babies in Riverton in the new facility is one that’s been celebrated, as it’s often one of the first services to be cut in rural areas. When RMD and Billings’ leaders did the virtual walk-through, the labor and delivery specialist said it looked great, with one exception. The standard doorway wasn’t wide enough for the bassinet on wheels to comfortably fit through, they pointed out. It was one of the countless updates and adjustments made to the designs.

“We finally got to the point where all the changes had been made and we walked our way through every square inch of that hospital,” Watkins said. “And everyone said, ‘It is done.’” 

The first floor of the hospital will boast a clinic and emergency department, with the second floor to include medical/surgical rooms, with ICU rooms that can be converted to medical/surgical rooms and a couple med/surg rooms that can be flipped into ICU rooms if needed, as well. The hospital will offer X-rays and labs – whatever is needed to get you a diagnosis, Watkins shared. 

As subcontractors are secured and construction begins to take shape, the emphasis will be on securing local workers, yet another another notch in the huge project that’s focused squarely on the local community. 

Not just any community could make such a monumental project a reality, Watkins said. She lauded the countless people who have worked toward RMD’s mission. “We have cried, we have laughed, we have planned,” she said. “We have beat our hands on the table, and we’ve celebrated.” And, when they’d get discouraged, someone has always been there with a dose of encouragement, reminding them: “Don’t you give up.” 

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