NASHVILLE — A year after Gov. Bill Lee's administration presented plans to replace the state-owned Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga with a new $265 million facility on the same history-rich site, local efforts to find a suitable location elsewhere in Hamilton County remain a work in progress.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's administration and state legislators from Hamilton County say they continue to work on alternative sites for a new facility to replace the 62-year-old hospital. The city, local lawmakers and historical preservationists want to fold the property where the hospital is now situated into the U.S. National Park Service's Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.
Kelly last year described the 956-acre historical district last year in a letter to the governor as a "gem of public space in the heart of Chattanooga" and expressed hopes of integrating the 107-acre psychiatric hospital property into the adjoining 956-acre Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.
Marie Williams, Tennessee's commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press during an interview last week at the state Capitol that the situation remains fluid.
"Right now, we're looking at sites and still looking at the cost of doing it there at Moccasin Bend," Williams said after she left a state budget-planning meeting with Lee, who is assembling his fiscal year 2023-24 spending plan.
"I'm sure you know the city's asked us to move from that property, so we're in the midst at this very moment of reviewing what they sent to see if it would even be viable to ask the governor, could we move."
Earlier this year, Kelly's administration submitted proposals for several properties, including a 12-acre site owned by Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments in the area of 702 E. 11th St., 740 E. 12th St. and a portion of the 600 block of East 11th Street, adjacent to the city's wellness center.
Other sites eyed are the former 11.8-acre Buster Brown facility at 2001 N. Chamberlain Ave. and a site owned by Grace Media at 1511 Citico Ave., which is 6.3 acres when combined with a city-owned parcel.
There's also been talk of seeking to acquire property belonging to investor-owned HCA Healthcare in the East Brainerd area of Chattanooga or an HCA-owned facility in Marion County.
Ellis Smith, director of special projects for Kelly, said by phone last week, "We're at a point now where we continue to work really hard with the state ... to identify a site that will fit the needs of the entire eastern portion of the state that rely on this critical care in moments of need -- while at the same time conserving and preserving Moccasin Bend for future generations to enjoy."
Smith said the city is now at a point where officials have "sort of re-presented a lot of options."
"It's fair to say we're continuing to identify additional sites for the state to consider or are willing to work with them in whatever way they need in order to move this forward and we will continue to do so," Smith added.
House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, who serves as chairwoman of Hamilton County's legislative delegation, said in a phone interview last week she has asked the city to present site options that the state can consider or choose from.
"It's my understanding they are in the process of doing that now," Hazlewood said. "The state doesn't own any property that would be suitable. The delegation is united in wanting a replacement facility that frees up the bend for the park. So, we need alternative sites."
Asked about some local talk that HCA may not be interested in selling the Hamilton County property, Hazlewood said, "I don't think that's been ruled out."
A Chattanooga-based HCA spokeswoman had no immediate comment Monday, saying she needed to check with HCA officials.
"I'd really like to settle it," Williams said of where the new facility will go. "It's hard for me to give you a time. If the properties check (out), then the Department of General Services goes out, does the survey, appraises the land, gives us what they believe it will cost. And that takes a little time."
The institute serves residents from 52 East Tennessee counties.
Last year, Williams released a list of goals the state has in terms of the hospital. They included continuing to meet the emergency psychiatric hospitalization needs of the area served and connecting patients to community-based mental health services after discharge. Other goals include making the best use of the Moccasin Bend property.
The hospital has 165 beds and has 459 people on staff. In 2021, the hospital served more than 2,000 people.
Across the Tennessee River from downtown Chattanooga, the archeological district that includes the hospital contains remnants of 12,000 years of continuous habitation, most of it by Native Americans.
It includes a number of sites of archeological and cultural significance. With the support of the Friends of Moccasin Bend, then-U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Chattanooga, pushed for and in 2003 won congressional approval for the creation of the Moccasin Bend Archeological District as a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.