The Dixie Medical Center needs to expand to serve a larger and more elderly population. But because of an agreement made by county officials, it has nowhere to go.

Never dreaming that a population explosion was in the offing, Washington County commissioners and for-mer owners and managers of the health-care facility 10 years ago leased the old St. George hospital to the state Department of Social Services curbing any expansion plans on site until 1996 or later."At the time they moved out of the old hospital, they no doubt thought the new wing would last forever and they wondered what they would do with all this land," said L. Steve Wilson, hospital administrator. "So, a 10-year lease agreement (with a 10-year option) was signed because they felt the old hospital was a white elephant, an albatross around their neck."

But the hospital's current owner, Intermountain Health Care, views the old facility as a goose that could give them a priceless golden egg more space.

According to Wilson, IHC's plan is to demolish the old building, which was built in 1952 and now houses a few hospital services including housekeeping and cardiology. The rest of the building is rented to Social Services at a "favorable lease rate."

In place of the old building, IHC would construct 169 new parking stalls, plus a new outpatient and same-day surgery entrance. Currently, many patients and visitors are parking in a church lot, which Wilson says isn't making some neighbors happy.

"Our goal is to create five entrances to the hospital," Wilson said. "Rather than being considered as one large department store, we are attempting to create several boutiques within a department store. This would eliminate people having to wander through the maze of the whole facility."

The administrator said the medical center property, located in the center of the city, could support a 200- to 220-bed hospital. It's now licensed for 160 beds.

IHC is, of course, anxious to maximize the space before they "move on."

Wilson said a hospital's useful life is generally about 30 years, and some parts of the Dixie Medical Center are only a year old.

"The growth we have been experiencing has been great, but not enough to support the development of a satellite hospital; it doesn't make sense to operate two hospitals simultaneously . . .," Wilson said.

"And, you just can't walk away from very viable, functional buildings. There isn't a very good market for used hospitals."

So Wilson is trying to convince the state to break the lease, while avoiding a heavy subsidy by the hospital to help them move.

But, given the state's current financial squeeze, the administrator says he understands why Social Services doesn't want to relocate.

"But they have to understand that their occupancy is standing in the way of the future development of the only hospital in town," he said.