Opinion: Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute’s relocation on the peninsula would be a disappointing choice

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / The Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, under a proposal by the Hamilton County legislative delegation, could relocate to a new facility in a smaller footprint just around the bend from the current site in Chattanooga.
Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / The Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, under a proposal by the Hamilton County legislative delegation, could relocate to a new facility in a smaller footprint just around the bend from the current site in Chattanooga.

A proposal to rebuild Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute on a smaller footprint further around the Tennessee River bend from its current site on the state-owned facility's existing property is tremendously disappointing.

Hamilton County's legislative delegation has endorsed such a proposal in a letter to Gov. Bill Lee, saying the state's real estate division, along with mental health officials, reviewed more than 40 sites (and apparently found them wanting).

The governor's press secretary, Jade Byers, said the administration has been in communication with the delegation and expects to present a proposal to the State Building Commission in the coming months.

Since the idea for a park on Moccasin Bend was revived in 1995, it has been the assumption of nearly everyone concerned that the hospital eventually would be moved or closed and its 90 acres given over to the National Park Service for inclusion in what is now the 956-acre Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Comments by state legislators and other public officials about the new proposal seemed almost resigned to the move around the bend and not enthusiastic.

"I guess you could say we looked at all the other locations," state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, told this newspaper's Andy Sher, "and it seemed to [make] more sense to deal with that tract on Moccasin Bend."

The hospital, which opened in 1961, was targeted for closure in a master plan by Gov. Ned McWherter's administration in the early 1990s, said to be on the chopping block by the Sundquist administration in 1999, downsized by forced budget cuts during the Bredesen administration in 2009 and marked as potentially being shut down in 10 years by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2011.

In 2021, though, the Lee administration announced plans for a $265 million-$276 million renovation of the hospital, an idea that dispirited park backers and sent elected officials looking into alternatives.

Tricia Mims, executive director of National Park Partners of Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend, said at the time if the hospital is renovated or rebuilt on the site, it could be two more generations before all of the area's "incredible resources" are seen.

"It would be a missed opportunity for the park to be able to open up," she said then.

A Cultural Landscape Report prepared for the district in 2014 suggested that for the site to fully realize its dream, the park service must acquire the hospital and other parcels nearby. A 2017 National Park Service General Management Plan Amendment reiterated the importance of acquiring additional acreage when available.

As recently as last year, state Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and state Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Hakeem, and Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, said moving the hospital made sense. Both Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and then-Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger were aboard, and former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said in a 2021 letter to the editor it would be an "unwise decision" to "invest in Moccasin Bend Hospital at its current location."

"Obviously, if we can move Moccasin Bend [hospital] and use that facility for a park," Hazlewood said, "that probably is a better use."

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who spearheaded the legislation to create the archeological district in 2003, told this page Thursday that building a new hospital on the bend is "not the ideal situation" but is "not as earth-shattering as keeping the [law enforcement] firing range" on the bend would be.

"If properly done," he said, adding that he envisions the rebuilt hospital to be "tucked away" from public areas of the park, "it's not the end of the world. It's a compromise conservationists can live with, if it's done right."

Newspaper archives reveal Wamp had to walk a tightrope between 1995 and the approval of legislation in 2003. National Park officials initially signalled they couldn't approve of a park if it didn't include the hospital property, while state and local officials were concerned about keeping the mental health facility.

When legislation finally was signed, he said, it was the intent that when the site was not used as a mental hospital, it would be given to the park. But whether rules and regulations specified that is "unclear."

The new proposal foresees using only 13 of the 90 acres the state owns on the peninsula for the new hospital, but that likely means the felling of some forested area, more disturbance of the culturally significant land that has seen habitation for some 12,000 years and an even longer presence in the area.

And it seems almost inconceivable the state could have examined 40 sites in Southeast Tennessee — some with the generous help of the city — and found none of them, including those close to hospitals, workable.

The question in the end is not whether there should be proper facilities for those with mental health needs or green space. It's having both in the best settings possible.

We hope officials will reconsider all alternatives and ask themselves if a mental health hospital is truly compatible with a national park.

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