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Change of heart?

City council rethinking donation of land for hospital 

News Staff Writer

A request from the Escambia County Healthcare Authority (ECHCA) that the city of Atmore donate 10 acres of Rivercane land for a new hospital has been rejected in one way or another by the city council on three occasions.
Now, judging from discussion during a Monday (February 24) council workshop, city council members have apparently had a change of heart.
District 5’s Chris Harrison said he, District 4’s Susan Smith and District 2’s Jerome Webster met recently with ECHCA Chair Debbie Rowell, CEO Chris Griffin and treasurer Nancy Lowrey about the situation. They were told that the hospital’s finances were “not in good shape at all,” that the local hospital actually lost money the last couple of years.
“I got more of an understanding about some of the things they are going through, some of the what-ifs,” said Harrison, who vowed last year he would never vote in favor of the land donation. “I basically understood that if they don’t do something, we’re going to be reduced to an urgent care, more or less. I think they’re willing to work with us on a way to get what they want.”
Harrison said the three council members were told that the authority spends most of the $1.5 million it receives in annual tax revenue on Atmore Community Hospital, and that Griffin spends 75 percent of his time in Atmore, “trying to make it work, keep it going.”
He said he came away with a new understanding of the authority’s plight.
“It was eye-opening to me,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone that was there, but I don’t want them to mortgage the farm to buy all that land. There’s got to be something in exchange, whether it’s money, land or money and land.”
He said Rowell, Griffin and Lowrey offered the city the eight acres of land on which the current hospital sits in exchange for the Rivercane property. The building itself would not be included in the swap.
Webster told his council peers that such a deal would benefit Poarch Band of Creek Indians more than anyone else.
“I think this is more for Poarch than anybody else,” he said. “I don’t want to give any land away. If we can work out a deal where they give us something, it will be a whole lot better than just giving them the land.”
In July 2019, PCI and ECHCA announced the negotiation of a land swap under which the authority would receive 10 acres of pastureland only a few hundred yards from the original proposed site in exchange for the property on which the hospital is presently located.
That deal fell through when it was determined that at least $1 million in infrastructure improvements would have to be done before a hospital could be built on the pastureland.
District 3’s Chris Walker asked what ECHCA could offer, other than the eight-acre tract surrounding ACH, in exchange for the 10 acres of municipal property.
“Based on the location they want us to donate, what could we expect to get out of that piece of property if we didn’t give it to them, if we were selling it just like we’re selling the rest of the property out there? How much are we losing if we donate the land? That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
Mayor Jim Staff said he didn’t feel like the city would lose anything by donating the acreage.
“That property wasn’t really bought to sell, it was bought to bring jobs and a money stream to the city,” the mayor said.
Harrison said he had discussed the state of affairs with the mayor and would be in favor of giving the hospital authority half the requested land, if the authority would pay for the other half.
“I’d be willing to donate the first five acres if they can pay us for the second five acres later,” he said. “But I think they don’t want to pay anything.”
Webster again asked about Poarch’s involvement in a transaction between the city and the healthcare authority.
“What does Poarch have to do with it?” he asked, to which Smith replied that “Poarch would be the biggest beneficiary of the hospital being out there.”
Walker agreed, pointing out that PCI has roughly 3,400 employees. Having the hospital nearby would reduce the tribe’s matching premiums on health insurance for those employees, he said.
“I think the amount Poarch has to pay to match the employee part would go down if they have a hospital right across the street,” he said.
Smith said the ECHCA officials told the trio of council members the new facility, for which the estimated construction cost has risen from $32 million to $36 million, would feature a stand-alone emergency department and only 14 beds for inpatients. Currently, ACH has 25 inpatient beds.
“I think that’s the first phase you’re talking about,” Staff answered. “They can put a second story on it.”
Harrison and Smith each expressed belief that the hospital should be built closer to the population center, specifically on property along Alabama 21, across from Hendrix Tractor Co. That property is also eligible for New Market Tax Credits, which the healthcare authority has specified would be a vital part of the financing for the new medical center.
Staff said the opinion of the council members didn’t really matter in this instance.
“That’s neither here nor there,” he said. “The hospital (authority) wants it out there (near Interstate 65). That’s where they think it’s going to succeed; not halfway there, all the way there.”
The council members agreed to have the Rivercane property and the ACH property appraised and go from there.
“What if we get both appraised and let them pay the difference in the appraisals?” asked Walker. “We can structure the contract donating the land with a provision that at some point in time, they pay the difference between the appraised value of this and the appraised value of that. We don’t really want to tax them if they’re not making money.”
Harrison reiterated that he doesn’t want to gamble on losing the community’s hospital.
“That’s not my favorite place to have it, but after talking with them (authority officials), I’m not willing to gamble that,” he said. “We’ve got to see what we can do. They’re waiting on us.”
Asked after the meeting about his previous opposition to the proposed land donation, Harrison shrugged and said, “things change.”