WATERVILLE — What do you get when you double the number of people you employ, purchase a second building and expand to provide 24-hour emergency care, 365 days a year?
If you are Eye Care of Maine, you get to be named the 2016 Business of the Year by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. The 54th annual award ceremony is set for 5 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield.
Dr. Peter Kohler, one of four owners, said the practice has gone from about 40 employees at offices at 325A Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville to more than 100 in the past decade and has added locations in Pittsfield and Greenville.
Kohler, 54, of Belgrade, who grew in Pittsfield, said he got started in professional eye care in 1993, but the practice has been around for a lot longer than that.
“This practice has been here almost 100 years,” Kohler said on a busy afternoon when patients streamed in and out. “We thank the chamber for recognizing us. We are quite proud of what we’re doing here at a lower cost to Medicare than at a hospital.”
Kohler received his medical degree at the University of Vermont and his residency training in ophthalmology in Kansas City, Missouri, then returned to Maine.
“It’s amazing to be named Business of the Year because there’s a lot of good businesses in Waterville and in this area,” he said. “We were quite honored.”
Eye Care of Maine traces its origin to Dr. Howard Hill’s Waterville ophthalmology practice, founded in 1922, and consists of both a clinic and an ambulatory surgery center. It is staffed by a team of eight eye care specialists — four ophthalmologists: Drs. Steve Witkin, James Putnam, Marc Daniels and Kohler; and four optometrists: Drs. Helen Bell-Necevski, Lorie Parks, Michael Parks, and Ian Jones.
Kohler said he attributes the growth in the practice to the expansion of the number of doctors and qualified staff members. He said his specialty is cataract and refractive surgery.
Eye Care of Maine offers consultations, diagnostic testing, advanced laser treatment and outpatient surgery for a wide range of eye problems, including cataract surgery, using both laser-assisted and conventional surgical techniques, refractive surgery, retinal diseases, glaucoma, oculoplastics, low vision, contact lenses, an eyewear center and comprehensive examinations.
“The growth of ECOM’s client base is truly remarkable,” said Christian Savage, program director for the Mid-Maine Chamber. “The chamber staff can attest to this, as it has seen an overwhelming increase in information requests from patients all across the state.”
In 2015 Eye Care of Maine performed more than 2,400 cataract surgeries, including 116 refractive laser-assisted cataract surgeries, more than 130 oculoplastic procedures, 183 refractive surgeries (Lasik), and 593 other laser surgical procedures and many eye examinations. It also performs eye plastic surgery for such things as drooping eyelids, Kohler said.
Savage said the growth at the business symbolizes “the exciting development and expansion happening in our region, making it a deserving recipient of this award.”
Kohler said the business is expanding further, with the purchase of a neighboring building. That building — 325B Kennedy Memorial Drive — will house the company’s telephone call center, billing office, medical records and administration. Its current building is scheduled for a full renovation, including two new practice areas and handicapped-accessibility. Future plans include the addition of new specialties and much needed additional providers.
Kohler said given the aging population of Maine, the needs of the community for competent eye care is essential.
“We do everything from routine eye care — contact lenses and glasses — to surgery,” he said. “We serve a large area of the state.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367