Healthcare officials moving forward, despite hitch in land plan
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Despite the up-in-the-air status of the land on which they want to build it, local healthcare officials announced last week that they are moving forward with plans to construct a $32 million, state-of-the-art hospital in Atmore. At the same time they reinforced their intent to build it near Interstate 65.
Most of the points made in a joint announcement issued November 28 by the Escambia County Health Care Authority and the Atmore Community Hospital Board had been stressed to members of the Atmore City Council during the council’s September 10 workshop.
The press release indicated that Rivercane is still the intended site of the new facility and made no mention of the Atmore City Council’s recent refusal to even introduce or entertain a motion that the city donate 10 acres of property for the new hospital in Rivercane.
Mayor Jim Staff said after the council refused to consider the matter that he “didn’t think this is over yet,” but at least one council member feels the panel is united in its opposition to the land transfer.
“Poarch might give them some land out there, or the city might sell them that land,” said District 4 Councilwoman Susan Smith. “But Rivercane was bought to sell, not give away. I want the council to vote on it. I think there are enough votes to stop it.”
No new concept
Richard Maxwell, who chairs Atmore Industrial Development Authority and is a strong proponent of the new hospital, was quick to point out that such a property donation wouldn’t be a precedent-setter.
“The city gave Brown Precision 23 acres of land, prime land that fronts (Interstate 65),” Maxwell said. “Plus, the city put $4.5 million into infrastructure out there for Brown. So donating 10 acres of land, not even prime land, for a hospital wouldn’t be anything unusual or out of the ordinary. And the infrastructure is already out there, so you wouldn’t have that cost.”
One of the major benefits of locating the medical center in Rivercane is the availability of New Market Tax Credits, which would ultimately allow for a reduction in debt of between $7.5 million and $10 million. Such credits are not available for the area in which ACH is currently located.
“Without this type of financing, it will be very difficult to obtain financing for this project,” the ECHCA/ACH Board said in its release. “In addition, the opportunity to attract new patients and provide additional services is much greater at this location than the current location.”
Will Ruzic, executive director of Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance, said relocating the hospital would also serve as a marketing tool for city officials as they try to lure developers to the Rivercane area.
“A facility like that would certainly be a draw for the area,” Ruzic said. “New hospitals, new schools and things of that nature show vibrancy to the people and businesses you’re trying to attract. Many rural communities are losing their hospitals; in this case, Atmore would not only retain its hospital, but build a new and modern one instead.
“When you couple that with the amount of debt savings the program would capture through the New Market Tax Credit program, the timing couldn’t be better.”
Ruzic explained that seven years after approval of NMTC, the federal program will rebate 25 percent of the project’s total cost to county healthcare overseers.
A study conducted by several entities determined that the new hospital — which would “replace the current facility outright” — would have 27 inpatient beds, as opposed to the 49 at the current facility. But the state-of-the-art medical center would also feature 10 emergency room beds, 1 or 2 operating rooms and an ICU. It would offer MRI, CT scan, echocardiogram, ultrasound, nuclear medicine and X-ray services and would feature an urgent-care department.
Maxwell said he was at a loss as to why the requested real estate donation has created such controversy.
“One of the keys to a viable city is a quality medical community,” he said. “Building a new hospital makes a statement that Atmore is a progressive community, willing to invest in something important.”
According to an atmore magazine article written in May 2015 by Mary Jane Schrock, who was director of education at ACH at that time but has since retired, the current hospital, located along Medical Park Drive, was built in 1966 and began operations there in 1967, when it was still known as Greenlawn Hospital.
Greenlawn, which was once located at the corner of Church and Seventh streets, was the successor to Atmore General Hospital and reportedly became Atmore Community Hospital in the mid-1970s. Schrock wrote that Atmore General evolved from the city’s first hospital, a private facility that was established in 1929 by a pair of local sisters.
Healthcare officials noted that the shortage of beds in the current hospital’s emergency department would be eliminated by the new facility, calling the present situation “a problem that has led to long wait times for Atmore residents and that is one of the most common complaints raised about the current hospital.”
Board and authority members also noted that enlarging the current ACH emergency room “would be impossible without (officials) also being forced to modify other areas of the hospital at substantial cost.”
According to the press release, the medical community is beginning to more warmly embrace the idea of a new hospital and its proposed location, even though it would require the physicians and other healthcare professionals to also relocate.
According to the announcement, Dr. Jonah McIntyre “wholeheartedly” supports the board’s plan, while ACH Director of Nursing Suzanne McGill would support the move to Rivercane “if it meant more modern services would be available to patients.”
Healthcare officials also argue that Rivercane offers greater information technology possibilities than does the hospital’s current location, a fact that could trim the overall cost. Fiber optic cable was installed in Rivercane during the Brown Precision construction project.
“Major fiber service lines have already been installed throughout Rivercane to support retail, commercial and industrial customers, and the hospital would have access to those same lines,” the release reads, noting that “the greater IT capacity … would allow the hospital to offer more services and, in turn, attract physician specialists from Mobile or Pensacola who could provide services in Atmore on certain days of the week.”
Local healthcare officials promised to not leave an empty, abandoned structure, if and when the new facility becomes a reality.
“We will first determine if a viable business can utilize the building,” the ECHCA/ACH Board release said. “If that is not possible, we will work with the city of Atmore to explore options for either repurposing the building or creating green space that may be used for recreational or other purposes to enhance the beauty and environmental quality of the neighborhood.”
Financing for the new community medical center would come from a combination of USDA grant and loan funds, bank loans received through competitive bid, New Market Tax Credits and “other public and private funds,” authorities said.
Out of options?
Maxwell said he thinks the site chosen for the new hospital, whether popular or not, is fast becoming the only option left to the community.
“I think a lot of people just don’t understand,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation being put out there. But so much study has gone into this; these professionals have dug into it deeply and come up with answers. A lot of communities are losing their hospital, and I don’t want to see us lose ours.
“Some people think there’s an option, but there’s not. Simply put, it’s Rivercane or nothing.”