From left, Dr. Michael Richards, interim executive vice president for the UNM Health Sciences Center, Dr. Paul Roth of the UNM Health Sciences Center and Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull were among those who participated in ground-breaking festivities for the Center of Excellence for Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation next to Sandoval Regional Medical Center on Tuesday morning. Gary Herron photo.

A virtual groundbreaking happened Tuesday for the imminent start of construction on a state-of-the-art orthopedics facility — “a medical destination,” it was said — at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences campus in Rio Rancho, uniting clinical and research activities under one roof.

The UNM Center of Excellence for Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation will include exam rooms for patients to consult with surgeons, an extensive orthopedics research laboratory and a rehabilitation facility.

Orthopedics, explained Dr. Robert Schenck, the chairman of the Orthopaedics Department and an orthopedic surgeon, “is the bricks and mortar of the human body.

“This center will teach future providers, will teach young students and will do research that will change and create a better life in New Mexico, from an orthopedic perspective, and also allow practitioners from all over the United States to come and learn,” he said at the ground-breaking.

The two-story, 50,000-square-foot structure will be adjacent to UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, but still on the educational campus’s property, said Jamie Silva-Steele, SRMC’s president and CEO. It is expected to open by November 2021.

“It’s such a great synergy with what’s happening already at SRMC,” Silva-Steele said. “What I envision over the five-year period is that we’ll add five more total joint surgeons, plus learners.”

Most of UNM Health’s joint replacement surgeries are already performed at SRMC.

The $21 million project will be funded through the city’s Higher Education gross receipts tax revenues, plus cash on hand and $15 million from bonds raised against future tax receipts, she said.

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, one of six featured speakers at the event, also being televised online, termed the project, “visionary progress come forward” and told the small gathering that, despite the pandemic, Rio Rancho has shown “no signs of slowing down.”

The new facility will also provide ample space on the first floor for research, said biomechanical engineer Christina Salas, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation and special assistant to the dean of the School of Engineering. It will also include room for a cadaver lab and two bio-safety level 2 work stations.

The second floor will have 40 clinic rooms, X-rays and multiple avenues to treat patients and evaluate them multiple types of providers, Schenck added, anticipating 900 visits per week.

Salas, who operates three labs at the UNM Health Sciences Center and the UNM School of Engineering, typically has five to 10 graduate students and 10-15 undergraduates working at a time.

“I’m really excited because I currently have three labs currently on two separate campuses and I spend a lot of my time driving back and forth,” she said.

The design will also let visitors safely view the work being done through a glass wall, reflecting the facility’s educational mission, Salas said.

The new facility is a major step forward in a 30-year master plan for the UNM Health Sciences Rio Rancho campus, Silva-Steele said.

Additional centers of excellence could eventually be located in the vicinity, Silva-Steele said. Long-term plans include adding landscaping, short-term housing, retail space and other amenities to the mix.

Silva-Steele credited the City of Rio Rancho for its vision in helping to grow the Health Sciences Center’s presence.

“It’s worked magically, where the city has a strong desire to use the gross receipts tax,” she said. “There’s a lot of desire for the community to see the benefit of having UNM here.”