ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine Coast Memorial Hospital broke ground Tuesday for an $11 million emergency center and kicked off the public portion of a $5.5 million capital campaign to help pay for it.

The F. Eugene Dixon Jr. Emergency Center will cover 20,000 square feet and will be more than triple the size of the existing emergency department, giving emergency room staffers the space they need to treat patients.

“We’re hoping to make the [emergency room] experience more pleasant and private, with room for family members and for the new technology that is coming down the pike,” said Dr. Kenneth Christian, chief of emergency medicine at the hospital.

The two-story building will house a total of 15 exam rooms, including two trauma rooms, family rooms, OB-GYN exam rooms and an X-ray room. The second floor eventually will house a new maternity ward. The project also includes a new central sterile processing center and new office space as well as a LifeFlight heliport.

Douglas Jones, the hospital’s president and CEO, said the helipad would allow the hospital to make faster connections to the newer high-tech emergency treatments available at larger hospitals such as Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine Medical Center in Portland and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“They’re now opening up veins to treat stroke victims,” Jones said. “That’s state-of-the-art, but it is dependent on time. You have a 4½-hour window with a stroke. We think we can connect patients in that time.”

The new emergency center is named for the late F. Eugene “Fitz” Dixon, a longtime benefactor of the hospital, who four years ago promised that if the hospital decided to build a new emergency room, he would donate $1 million for the process.

Dixon’s wife, Edith R. Dixon, who now sits on the hospital board, recalled being a new bride when she joined her husband and his mother, Eleanor Widener Dixon, to lay the cornerstone for the first Maine Coast Memorial Hospital building, and said “Fitzy” would be proud to know the new emergency center will be named for him.

Dixon also urged the crowd at Tuesday’s groundbreaking to work with capital campaign chairman Robert Merrill to help raise the money to pay for the project. The hospital plans to use tax-exempt bonds from the Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority to fund a portion of the project, but still will need to raise about $5.5 million though the capital campaign.

“I know this is not the best time for this,” Dixon said, referring to the recent financial crisis. “But if we all dig in a little bit, we will be able to get this done.”

Merrill said the hospital already has received promises of a couple of substantial gifts that will be announced soon. He also said the members of the boards of the hospital and the Maine Coast Healthcare Foundation all have pledged personal donations to the campaign.

The current emergency room has been overcrowded and overused, according to Christian. With the growth in the hospital’s service area in the past decade, the emergency room built in 1989 and designed for 12,000 visits a year has been receiving 18,000 visits a year.

“We’ve had to treat some patients in the hallway, just to get people through,” Christian said. “We had no place to see people.”

The emergency room needs to have more space and state-of-the-art equipment that can accommodate the increased number of patients in a comfortable and private setting, according to Christian.

The Dixon Emergency Center, which was designed by Portland-based architecture firm SMRT, will be constructed at the rear of the hospital and will include a new ambulance entrance that will cover a portion of the existing parking lot. Crews are already preparing an expanded parking area, including a rainwater retention system

Since the construction will be at the rear of the existing building, hospital operations, including the existing emergency room, will be able to function without interference.

“We can built it here, while they are working in there,” Jones said. “That made [the process] a little faster.”

Crews will do some preparation work this fall, but will begin construction in earnest next spring. Jones said they hope to have the new emergency center completed by spring or early summer 2010.