New tenant for old hospital?

County officials reviewing lease agreement for rehab program

By Mark Randall news@theeveningtimes.com

The county attorney is reviewing a proposed lease agreement that could land a new tenant to occupy the former Crittenden Regional Hospital building. And contrary to rumor, it is not a prison. County Judge Woody Wheeless told the Quorum Court this week that he has a potential entity that would like to use the hospital to house low risk drug offenders who are in a transitional substance abuse rehabilitation program. If the deal goes through, the county would be off the hook for paying the utility bills and could even net the county 130 new jobs. “Word has spread on Facebook that the county is negotiating with an entity about possibly turning the old hospital into a prison. That is not accurate at all,” Wheeless said. “We were contacted by an entity who wants to take over our facility and use it as a drug rehab for females. These are females who have been arrested for maybe breaking into a home looking for money or stolen from a relative for drug money and sent to prison over drugs, but prison really isn’t the proper place for them.” Wheeless said the facility would house about 350 females and would employ about 120 to 150 people. “So from that perspective, it is a good thing,” Wheeless said. Wheeless said prison overcrowding has been a big issue in the state. The state is looking to ease that burden by housing nonviolent offenders — especially drug offenders — in other facilities to free up jail space. “The way they are proposing this idea is that you have a segment of the population arrested for substance abuse or something and they are being put in prison and occupying space where there may be alternatives out there to help the individual and free up some space,” Wheeless said. The entity runs a similar facility in a former hospital building in Fayetteville, Wheeless said. “They took over a hospital in Fayetteville and did the same thing they are wanting to do here,” Wheeless said. “There is a need out there for this.” Wheeless said the building would not be turned in to a prison. “I was hesitant when they first mentioned what they wanted to do,” Wheeless said. “First thing I said — just live everybody else — was we don’t need a prison here. But this place won’t even be fenced in. The females who are there wear scrubs like you would see in a hospital. So it’s not like you will be seeing barbed wire and prison guards. It doesn’t work that way.” Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014 and declared bankruptcy. The county has been spending about $100,000 a month to keep the utilities on, security, and insurance on the building. The Quorum Court has given Wheeless until March 1 to find a new tenant or else close the building for good. Wheeless said local state representatives met with skeptical physicians and business owners this week to explain the plan and everyone walked away satisfied. “They told me the perception at the meeting when they walked in there was one thing — which was a prison,” Wheeless said. “But when they walked out the door the perception was entirely different and they were supportive.” Wheeless said he has also spoken to representatives from Baptist Memorial Health Care and they are also supportive of leasing the building for a drug rehab center. Baptist is proposing to build a new $25 million, 50,000 square foot hospital which will open in 2018. Wheeless said if the deal is approved the new entity would assume the cost of the utilities by March 1. The new lease holders would also make all necessary improvements to the building. “There are some roof repair issues. They saw all of it. They are aware of it,” Wheeless said. “I told them we were turning off the lights March 1 and they said they would be ready to have it switched over by March 1.” The lease would be for one dollar a year. Wheeless said deal would not only keep the building open and free the county of any further maintenance costs, but provide jobs as well. “From our perspective, I think it is a situation where we will be able to help people and create jobs,” Wheeless said. “And it will eliminate that liability that we have been paying for the last 15 and 16 months, plus somebody else will be responsible for that facility. I think it is a good situation for us to be in, especially this late in the ball game because w are cutting off the power in two weeks and calling it quits. This coming up is a blessing for somebody to use that facility.” Justice Lorenzo Parker called it a “silver lining.” “I think 130 jobs is great and it is a viable option that we need to pursue,” Parker said. “And if we have the doctor’s blessings, why not?” Other justices agreed. “I’ve been one of the loudest about closing the hospital,” said Justice Ronnie Sturch. “If we have something like this in the works, then I think it is a great plan. All I want to see is that we have a viable option or a plan.” “I think we ought to go with it,” Justice Stacey Allen added. “Sounds good to me,” Justice Ronnie Marconi agreed. Wheeless thanked the justices for their hard work on the hospital issue. “I think we have a potential situation here that will be good for our community,” Wheeless said. “A lot of hours have been put in this from 2014 to where we are today. But I think every bit of it in the end will be worth the headaches and heartaches we have been through. I see nothing but good things happening for this community as a result of everyone seeing that vision and working together. You have done a great job. You’re always looking out for the county.”

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