While Lincoln Park residents celebrate Mayor Andy Berke's promise to preserve the neighborhood's park space, Erlanger hospital trustees say they aren't ready to make any promises yet.
Berke and Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel assured the public Friday that they are committed to going through with plans for the hospital to donate five acres of its land for a city park. But several board members say Erlanger -- a cash-strapped public hospital that has been cut from city funding for two years -- needs more out of the deal.
"The city of Chattanooga has not been too friendly to help Erlanger," said trustee Jim Worthington. "The city wants Erlanger to pay for citizens' [indigent care] at a loss. It's our responsibility as trustees to see that Erlanger gets all the help it can get."
He and several other trustees said they need more time to study the issue, and that they would like to see some kind of formal land swap with the city.
"It would be a land swap or something where we will gift this land to the city, or where we as a hospital would absolutely preserve it as a park instead of just giving away an asset," said trustee Phyllis Miller. "That would satisfy the fiduciary responsibility of the board."
None of the Erlanger board members reached Friday said they knew the market value of the five-acre plot, which is behind Erlanger's downtown campus.
While the land donation involves two public entities, the transfer so far has only been discussed behind closed doors.
Board members were handed the resolution in a closed meeting held before Thursday's public meeting, trustees said. After several board members raised questions about the legality of the deal to the hospital's attorney, officials decided to keep it off the agenda.
According to a copy of the resolution obtained by the Times Free Press, the land would have been donated to the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, "for preservation and use as a public park." According to the resolution, the property would revert to Erlanger if it were used for any purpose other than a park.
Some hospital officials have said the good will generated in the community as a result of the land donation is reason enough to proceed with the transfer.
"I am excited about this opportunity to bring our mission of changing lives to life," board member Kim White said in a city-issued new release. "We can come together and turn this into an asset we can all be proud of."
But others say that goodwill must be paired with a clear understanding of how the city's planned Central Avenue extension will affect the hospital.
"We want to work with everyone to get this done, but Erlanger's only bargaining chip in how that road affects them is that land," trustee Russell King said. "Before we sign off on this, show me that map. Where exactly is the road is going?"
Several trustees said the mayor's announcement put the board in a sticky situation, now that neighborhood residents are celebrating a deal that has yet to be finalized.
"I think that probably would have been helpful to hear from all the parties first," said Miller.
Trustee Mike Griffin said while a land swap was ideal, he would likely approve turning the land into a park "either way."
"We think it's the right thing to do for the community. The land is not really anything we can use for any other purpose," he said. "If we sell it to a developer because Erlanger needs the money ... then God knows what happens back there."
Spiegel said that there likely will be a called meeting for the hospital's strategic planning committee to meet with city officials and Lincoln Park representatives before a vote on the issue sometime next month.
That's what Worthington said should have happened in the first place.
"We were due better consideration," he said. "This is not politics. This is us trying to do things right."
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison kharrison@times freepres.com or 423-757-6673.
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