CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) --  Erlanger Health System kicked off construction Tuesday for a $7.8 million emergency center at Erlanger East on Gunbarrel Road in Chattanooga.

"Our new, full-service emergency center will be the only facility of its kind to serve the growing population of East Hamilton County," said Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson, Erlanger President and CEO.

Erlanger's executive team, along with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga City Mayor Ron Littlefield, marked the moment with a symbolic "Ground Opening" ceremony, using oversize scalpels to cut open a blue tarp covering the ground.

"Across the country, more people are seeking emergency care every year, but the number of emergency centers has dropped by 20 percent over the last decade," explained Dr. James Creel, Erlanger Chief Medical Officer. "That's why this is such a significant milestone. Our new ER at Erlanger East is being built at the right place, at the right time."

Once completed, the facility will span 22,000 square feet and will be equipped with the newest technology for emergency care. The emergency center will have 17 treatment rooms; a six-bed clinical observation unit; full-service imaging and radiology, laboratory and respiratory services; nuclear medicine capabilities; and a fully-trained staff of about 80 specialists in emergency care.

The full-service facility will offer treatment to both adults and children. Erlanger estimates 15,000 patients will visit the East Emergency Center within the first year of operation.

Erlanger East's Urgent Care clinic will continue to operate and serve area residents until the new emergency center opens. The Urgent Care has extended weekday hours and is open on the weekends.

The construction of the new emergency center at Erlanger East is one phase of a master plan to grow with the needs of the region. Previous expansions at Erlanger East include the labor and delivery area and the nursery suite; increased surgical capabilities with the addition of a daVinci robot; and the establishment of Erlanger's own full-service imaging center with the purchase of Galen Imaging. Additional inpatient beds will be constructed in multiple phases at Erlanger East to accommodate more patients as Erlanger continues to grow.