Catoosa County residents speak out against proposed mental health facility

Catoosa County residents speak out against proposed mental health facility

September 11th, 2019 by Patrick Filbin in Local Regional News

Catoosa County residents gather at Ringgold United Methodist Church at the first of three town hall meetings hosted by Healthy Foundations about a proposed mental health facility in Tunnel Hill, Georgia. / Staff photo by Patrick Filbin

Photo by Patrick Filbin /Times Free Press.

A proposed $50 million comprehensive counseling and addiction services center is facing backlash from residents in Catoosa County, Georgia, who don't want the mental health facility built in a residential area.

More than 50 people gathered Tuesday night at a Ringgold town hall meeting, which was hosted by Healthy Foundations, a nonprofit seeking to buy 200 acres to build a campus that will include counseling rooms, medical and dental care offices, housing, classrooms, a chapel, a daycare center, a clothing boutique, an industrial kitchen and other amenities.

Nearby residents worry the location of the proposed facility is too close to Tiger Creek Elementary School in Tunnel Hill, Georgia, and they would prefer it be built in a more industrial area.

Bobby Whittemore, a lifelong Catoosa County resident, lives on Lake Road in Tunnel Hill near where the facility would be built. Whittemore said he thinks building the facility is a great idea and that it is needed in Northwest Georgia. However, he said, he is against the proposed location.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Healthy Foundations is holding two more town hall meetings on Thursday and Tuesday.

If the project is approved, it could be ready to open in about two years and employ between 75 and 100 people, Hunter said.

On Sept. 24, the Catoosa County Planning Commission will vote to recommend the project or not, and on Oct. 15 the full commission would decide if it’s approved.

"They're trying to put this in your neighborhood where your kids go to school," Whittemore told the crowd Tuesday night. "I'm not saying this is not a good thing. Put it anywhere else."

"Put it in your neighborhood," Whittemore yelled at the meeting's hosts.

Healthy Foundations CEO and President DeLaine Hunter said she would gladly build the facility at her home if she could.

"I live and work here. I've been here for 20 years," Hunter said. "I'm in my community myself, and I'm not lying when I say if I could put this in my backyard. I would."

Hunter is also CEO and president of the North Georgia Healthcare Center in Ringgold. Several times during the meeting, she and other representatives of Healthy Foundations and supporting entities were yelled at by members of a rowdy and restless crowd.

Many in attendance were against having the facility in a residential area. Those who spoke worried about their property values decreasing and the safety of children and families in the area. They also wondered why the facility couldn't be built in a more industrial area.

Others said they felt caught off guard because they hadn't heard of the plans before the Times Free Press reported on the proposal last week.

Hunter told the crowd the plan has been in motion for three and a half years but only picked up steam in May when she and other organizers met with the Catoosa County Planning Commission. They discussed the idea for the first time with the county commission in June, she said.

While some in the crowd said that it feels as if Healthy Foundations is trying to rush the process, Hunter said it has been a long three and a half years and it hasn't felt like that from behind the scenes.

Some residents, including the executive director of Communities in Schools, Suzanna Chovanec, thought the facility was a great idea.

"The only way we're going to fix this problem is to own it," Chovanec said. "The only way we're going to own it is we're going to step up as a community. No matter where we put it, there's going to be opposition. What I'm asking you as a community where I live and I work is that you step up and own the problem that is in your backyard."

Sometimes, Chovanec added, people have to make sacrifices for the good of other people.

 

What is being proposed

Plans for the proposed facility also include equestrian activities, tennis and volleyball courts, a baseball field, walking trails, a pool, a theatre, a "workforce hub" to teach skills ranging from automotive and food service to cosmetology, and an IT area.

The proposed location is less than two miles from Tiger Creek Elementary School.

Partners behind the Healthy Foundations project said it's modeled after the City of Refuge in Atlanta — a place that helps people and families transition out of crisis by providing all the services they need in one location through community partners specialized in health and wellness, transitional housing, vocational training and job placement assistance, and youth development.

Ringgold counseling provider Center of Hope and CIMDEX — a company that measures social impact — are two community partners behind Healthy Foundations. CIMDEX CEO Terry Tucker was part of launching City of Refuge in Atlanta and brings his knowledge of that model to the Healthy Foundations project in Catoosa County.

Tucker said the evidence-based model created by The Brookings Institute is "a different way of serving people in need" that gives people the skills to move from a state of disruption to a place of self-sufficiency.

Hunter and Terry reiterated that the City of Refuge's school that is on-site and a nearby daycare haven't had any issues in the 20 years the facility has been there.

Hunter said the campus will provide counseling and addiction management to adults, children and families, but it will not offer psychiatric treatment for people with mental illness.

If people need psychiatric care, they will be referred to outside providers.

Annette Stout — who owns her own family care practice in Dalton — is worried about the lack of available psychiatric care in the area.

"It's incredibly difficult to get psychiatric help in this area," Stout said. "It's hard enough when I have people with cash who want to see a psychiatrist and getting them an appointment in three months."

Other residents worried about the sorts of people the facility might admit and their histories.

Although some clients may have criminal records, no felons or sex offenders would be allowed on campus, Tucker said.

Local officials including Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk, county school Superintendent Denia Reese and Catoosa County Commission Chairman Steven Henry largely have been in support of the plan.

Sisk has said such a facility is desperately needed in the area, and Reese said she would work closely with him to ensure the safety of the community and children as the plan moves forward.

Henry said he supports the idea of the project, but he wants to make sure the location is right.

Contact Patrick Filbin at 423-757-6476 or pfilbin@timesfreepress.com.


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