The Family Birthing Center at New Milford Hospital -- the place where many town residents drew their first breath -- will close this year.

Deborah Weymouth, the senior vice president of operations at Western Connecticut Health Network -- the umbrella organization that manages Danbury and New Milford hospitals -- and the executive director in New Milford, made the announcement at a March 22 press conference at the hospital.

Ms. Weymouth said the hospital will close the center slowly, over several months. She said she expects there will still be babies born there through December.

But by year's end, Ms. Weymouth said, the center will shut its doors.

The announcement does not come as a surprise.

As previously reported by The Greater New Milford Spectrum and The News-Times, hospital officials have been discussing the consolidation of birthing centers at Danbury Hospital for several weeks.

But to reach that decision, officials held several meetings with town residents both to hear their opinions and to listen to their concerns.

"We've talked to a lot of people along the way -- parents, nurses, doctors,'' said network spokeswoman Andrea Rynn.

In the end, the declining birth rate in the Greater New Milford area made keeping the center open too costly a proposition, said Ms. Weymouth, who added the relocation of the center will be "an emotionally difficult change."

"People love the local, wonderful, high-touch environment here," she said.

In 2009, there were 343 babies born at the hospital. By 2011, that had dropped to 263 babies. The rate over the first three months of 2012 showed a continuing decline, Ms. Weymouth said.

"At the same time, to operate the center, we have to staff it with three maternity nurses around the clock, 24/7,'' Ms. Weymouth said. "There's the cost of lights, of heat.''

As a result, she said, the center ran a $2.7 million deficit in 2011.

The Western Connecticut Health Network's board voted unanimously Thursday to close the New Milford birthing center, and hospital administrators met later in the day with nurses.

Joanne Chapin, president of the nurses' union at New Milford Hospital, said before that meeting "word had gotten out" the birthing center would close (see related story for reaction).

"Some of the nurses have already found other jobs at area hospitals; some are staying on to see what happens," Ms. Chapin said.

The affiliation with Danbury Hospital, which is about 15 miles away and which has a state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit, makes it almost certain that any mother with an at-risk pregnancy will choose Danbury for delivery.

"We have seen an uptick of patients going to Danbury,'' Ms. Weymouth noted.

Mayor Patricia Murphy of New Milford said she understands the decision.

"But there's a little of feeling wistful for yesterday," she said, "when I think of the birthing center closing."

Mayor Murphy also said she is worried about birthing center nurses losing their jobs.

"If they really want to have a high standard of care, they'll have all our nurses transferred to Danbury," the mayor said.

Ms. Weymouth said the staff of the birthing center, which employs 16 to 18 people, will have every opportunity to stay working at Western Connecticut Health Network.

Danbury Hospital's birthing center will probably have to add staff because of the increased volume of births there, she said.

Other nurses may choose to move into other specialties.

Ms. Chapin said the nurses in New Milford and those in Danbury belong to the same union but have different locals. That would mean nurses transferring to Danbury Hospital would maintain fringe benefits such as like vacation weeks, but they would lose their seniority standing.

Ms. Weymouth said the space at the birthing center -- which has eight rooms, a nursery and central nursing station -- will not go to waste.

Among the possible uses for it are an outpatient dialysis unit, an outpatient physical therapy unit, an expansion of New Milford Hospital's intensive care unit and an expansion of its operating room facilities.

Ms. Weymouth said this redistribution of resources at New Milford Hospital -- and within the Western Connecticut Health Network -- is vital if the health institutions are to thrive in what appears to be a time of tumult in the industry.

"I absolutely believe this is the best thing for us,'' she said. "But is it a difficult place to get to? It absolutely is.''

Susan Tuz contributed to this report.

"People love the local, wonderful, high-touch environment here. At the same time, to operate the center, we have to staff it with three maternity nurses around the clock, 24/7... there's the cost of lights, of heat.''

Deborah Weymouth, senior vice president of operations at Western Connecticut Health Network and executive director at New Milford Hospital