Walker County, Georgia, soon could be home to a sprawling campus built to give affordable health care and housing to veterans, help young people aging out of foster care and assist families and individuals with physical and mental medical assistance.
The nonprofit behind the multimillion-dollar project is the same one that tried to build a similar project in Catoosa County last year but pulled the plug after public pushback.
The North Georgia Healthcare Center and the nonprofit Healthy Foundations have teamed up again to bring what they are calling the country's first "collective integrated health care campus" to Walker County.
Healthy Foundations President Terry Tucker said in a statement the program's "out of the shadows" approach establishes consistency in people's daily lives "that results in opportunities to reach self-sufficiency."
In September 2019, Healthy Foundations was months away from building a $50 million campus that would have offered comprehensive counseling and addiction management services.
The idea had community support from local elected officials, law enforcement leaders and members of the mental and public health field. Many saw it as a way to combat the opioid epidemic that has hurt Northwest Georgia, while being an economic development piece in creating jobs.
In a statement, Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said the project will result in new employment opportunities for county residents.
After a phased opening over four years, Healthy Foundations plans to employ 250 workers ranging from counselors and physicians to facilities maintenance and childcare staff.
There are also plans to serve partners and establish smaller satellite locations within Catoosa, Chattooga and Dade counties, the company announced.
However, a vocal group came out against the development, especially the proposed location. The campus was going to be built less than 2 miles from Tiger Creek Elementary School in Tunnel Hill, Georgia.
DeLaine Hunter, CEO and president of the North Georgia Healthcare Center in Ringgold, was also in charge of Healthy Foundations back in September. She has been adamant about the project for years and has said if she could build the campus in her own backyard she would.
However, after a town hall meeting where more than 50 people objected to the campus' location, the building of the campus was in doubt.
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.
Those same worries might pop up again this time around. The site selected for the Walker County campus is located on 374 acres near LaFayette, and the front entrance of the property is about 1 mile from Gilbert Elementary School. Healthy Foundations points out that the closest living unit on the property will be located another mile away.
Although some worried the earlier plan seemed rushed, Hunter had said it had 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, Hunter said.
A couple of weeks after the first town hall meeting, Hunter and other people behind the scenes at Healthy Foundations backed out of the Catoosa County plan and decided to reassess.
With the reassessment in motion, Healthy Foundations has set its sights on Walker County.
Healthy Foundations' new campus would include a health care and counseling center, an independent living area with supportive services and workforce and youth development opportunities. It would also feature an "innovative Veterans Village to serve the unique behavioral health and housing needs of area service members."
"From our research, we know that Walker County has individuals who would be perfect partners as employees," Tucker said in a statement. "Walker County is a caring community with businesses and individuals who are dedicated to making sure this is a healthy place to live, work and play. It's this commitment that makes LaFayette and Walker County a great location for the work ahead."
Tucker noted in the announcement the campus will have a private security team and state-of-the-art surveillance available on site.
"Most people entering our campus for housing, training and other programs will not be coming because of mental health concerns," Tucker said. "We are not a mental health facility and will refer those individuals appropriately."
The campus will not admit violent criminals or sex offenders nor will it use any taxpayer dollars. Tucker also emphasized the center is "not a dedicated drug or substance abuse rehabilitation center."
The public is encouraged to attend a town hall meeting in Walker County on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at the Walker County Civic Center in Rock Spring.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.