Consultants recommend that ACH stay near downtown
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Consultants from the group with whom the City of Atmore has partnered to help make critical land use decisions say that the inclusion of Atmore Community Hospital is vital to the effort to revitalize the community’s downtown region.
But a subcommittee of the 23-member committee charged with examining and refining the recommendations made by Smart Growth America has decided to exclude that suggestion from its consideration.
The committee was initially divided into five such subcommittees: Hospital, Historic Buildings, Rivercane, Downtown and Signage/Arts. But the small group charged with considering the recommendations on the hospital’s location has been disbanded.
Emilee Waters, who chaired the subcommittee before it was eliminated, noted that the committee has no authority to order any particular action. Therefore, she said, the committee as a whole decided to bypass that portion of the suggestions made by the Washington, D.C.-based consultants.
“We did our due diligence,” Waters said. “The committee felt like it was more important to look at the low-hanging fruit. The hospital (location) is above our reach, I guess you would say.”
Atmore is one of just six U.S. communities that were each awarded a $35,000 grant that SGA received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Community Development Initiative program.
According to an article written by SGA’s Brian Lutenegger and posted on Smart Growth America’s website, the city’s most prudent course of action would be to either leave the hospital where it is, or to not move it very far from its present location.
“By preserving and redeveloping vacant buildings and focusing on downtown placemaking, Atmore can create a healthy heart that will pay dividends into the future,” Lutenegger wrote. “Fitting with that recommendation, keeping the hospital in its current location or moving to another downtown-adjacent property would be a boon for the city’s economic prosperity over the longer term.”
Three different paid consultants (engaged by either Escambia County Healthcare Authority or Atmore Hospital Board, or both) have reportedly recommended that a new hospital be built and that it be built on 10 acres of property the City of Atmore owns in the Rivercane economic development area, just off Interstate 65.
ECHA and AHB officials have repeatedly reported that the community will probably lose its hospital unless a new facility is built. Estimates are that a new hospital, which would still be without a Labor and Delivery section, will cost $32 million.
During a December 2018 public hearing, then-ECHA chair Nancy Lowrey said studies have shown that it would cost more to renovate the current hospital than it would to build the new one.
“That facility has aged to the point where we can’t improve it anymore,” she said. “If we start remodeling that facility, it’s just cost-prohibitive.”
At that same meeting, Dr. William Harris said estimates are that such a remake would cost $50 million.
But local businessman Jerry Gehman, who serves as vice-chair of the local SGA committee, said he is “vehemently opposed” to building a new hospital, and to locating any new medical facility outside the city limits.
“I’d rather the hospital stay where it is,” Gehman said. “This (ACH) can be redone. What would happen if they spent the same money (that) they are going to spend out there, to renovate the hospital we already have? It’s designed for three stories, and it’s two-story. The hospital board is committed to this. Are there other motivations for this? I don’t know that; I can’t say that, but I just feel there is.”
Lowery said during the December public hearing that renovation was considered before the decision was made that a new hospital was needed.
“Our first goal was to try and build the (new) hospital at the current site,” she said. “But we cannot build a hospital there; we would have to build in phases, and that costs more.”
Gehman, who helped procure the SGA grant, disagreed. He pointed out that the hospital authority has the same amount of property adjacent to ACH that it wants at Rivercane. If that isn’t adequate, then why not build the new medical center in a location where it would benefit the overall effort to revitalize downtown, he wondered.
“If we have to change the hospital, why not build it in the city proper?” he asked. “Smart Growth said the same thing. I like their perspective. It’s not my idea; it’s their idea. If we can’t keep the hospital we have, if for some God-forsaken reason we don’t have the technology in America to rebuild the hospital, then let’s do it proper and where it benefits the city and its populace.”
He admitted, though, that he and anyone else who opposes the construction of a new hospital is most likely fighting a losing battle. He compared the group to an aging lion.
“The hospital board has voted,” he said. “Smart Growth’s position is that (members of the committee) need to take a look at this and need to influence people. Our position is, we’re not sure we can. We don’t have any teeth; we don’t have any claws. We don’t have the ability to change what the hospital board has already made a decision on.”