The future of Shellharbour Hospital is now clear with the announcement on Tuesday that a new $700 million hospital will be built at a greenfield site in the region.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Communities and Disability Services Minister Gareth Ward visited Shell Cove on Tuesday morning to reveal details of the project.
"We're extremely pleased to announce that, as part of the government's acceleration fund of $3 billion, we're providing an additional $320 million to build the Shellharbour Hospital," Ms Berejiklian said.
"We know this community is growing, we know we need to take pressure off Wollongong Hospital and Shoalhaven Hospital into the future."
Ms Berejiklian said 2800 jobs would be created in the construction of the hospital, which will look to use local materials and supply chains "as much as possible".
The funding represents the region's single biggest infrastructure project, surpassing the $630 million for the Albion Park Rail bypass.
The hospital will be built on a greenfield site yet to be determined but it is understood several sites are under consideration, including one described as being near the rail line and the Princes Highway.
"Now the job for us is to find the site and get cracking with building the hospital," Ms Berejiklian said.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard said work would start in around 18 months and he hoped the new hospital would be completed in five years.
"We have a couple of sites in mind," Mr Hazzard said.
"One of them is very well-located to the rail line and the highway. Health Infrastructure is working on that as we speak."
Mr Hazzard said a greenfield site would make the construction easier than trying to upgrading the exisiting Shellharbour Hospital location.
"When you're building on a hospital site, it's always challenging," he said. "You need the hospital to still be working and delivering services.
"If you can build on a greenfield site it will make a huge difference to what you can build and also to make sure there's no interruptions to the existing services that we have at Shellharbour Hospital."
He said the new hospital would "effectively double the capacity in most areas" of the existing hospital.
"We'll have a new emergency department, new maternity, new mental health facilities, it will certainly require extra staff," he said.
Kiama MP Gareth Ward said the significant investment would change lives in the region.
"Today is 700 million reasons why the people of this region can smile," he said.
"(It's) an enormous investment in not just today, but the future healthcare needs of this region, attracting world-class doctors, nurses, clinicians and allied health professionals."
Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District board chair Denis King welcomed the "visionary decision" which he said would affect all the district's health facilities.
"It will allow us to recast the way we deliver healthcare to co-ordinate our care across all our sites," he said.
"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to plan services, to learn the lessons that have come out of COVID in terms of how we should be delivering services, about how we can integrate with the community better and how beneficial that can be."
The hospital will not be constructed as a private-public partnership but will be a public hospital.
It will be welcome news for the community, and hospital staff, who have long campaigned for the hospital to either be redeveloped on its current site at Mount Warrigal, or built from scratch at a new site.
The NSW Government initially announced $251 million to redevelop Shellharbour Hospital as part of its 2015 election campaign, however in September 2016 the then health minister, Jillian Skinner, announced it was one of five regional hospitals to be upgraded under a public-private partnership.
After a community outcry that the hospital would be taken out of public hands, those plans were scrapped in October 2017, with Mr Ward telling the Mercury at the time that the government would instead go ahead with the $251 million redevelopment of the ageing facility on its current site.
However an additional $128 million of funding announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in May 2019 again raised the possibility that a brand new hospital could be built.
Shellharbour MP Anna Watson said she was delighted by the announcement, which she said would better serve the growing southern Illawarra community and ease the pressure on Wollongong Hospital's busy emergency department.
"This is a fabulous announcement for our community, it's going to bring more jobs, it's going to take pressure off Wollongong Hospital's emergency department and it's going to provide services the community needs," Ms Watson said.
"Hopefully there'll be more surgery, a bigger and better emergency department and a whole range of other services that come along with it."
Ms Watson said one of the main problems with the current site was its inaccessibility.
"The existing hospital is very difficult to get to when you don't have a car," she said. "Being close to public transport is vital."
Shellharbour Hospital was opened in 1986, after many years of lobbying and at a cost of $22 million.
We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.