The North Bay passed a health care milestone last week.

It was the celebration of the final phase toward completion of a new, 42,500-square-foot medical facility for the former Southwest Community Health Center, now citywide as Santa Rosa Community Health Centers.

The centers, which clock 100,000 patient visits a year, can serve an additional 9,500 men, women and children with the new $17.7 million Fountaingrove center, purchased through a combination of more than $2 million in community fundraising and the sale of bonds.

The community fundraising included local foundations and individual support as well as all three major health care providers, Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and St. Joseph Health System. In other words, the project had support across a broad swath of Sonoma County.

More importantly, as Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo pointed out in his brief remarks at the ceremony, the center is an investment in the community. A healthier community is a stronger, more prosperous one. And Supervisor Carrillo, who is a former board chair for the centers, said the county clearly saw its $500,000 contribution as one that will reap benefits for decades to come.

It's also important to understand that the new center was needed with or without the recent passage of the health care bill, and in fact was in the planning stages for many years.

Across the North Bay, in West Sonoma County, Petaluma, Sonoma, Napa and in Marin County, health centers are in a major growth phase directed at fulfilling a clear need. And driving the expansion is the concept of creating a "medical home" for thousands of people who are now accessing care through expensive hospital emergency rooms.

The new Santa Rosa health center is continuing the process of fundraising for interior improvements, including the opportunity to underwrite individual exam rooms, of which there will be more than 50.

The roots of Santa Rosa Community Health Centers date to the mid-1990s when a facility in an industrial park opened to serve a handful of patients.

Later this year, it expects to open its new, marquee Fountaingrove center, and when it does, it will be a major symbol of a caring community.