Quorum Court approves ACC relocation plan
Quorum Court approves ACC relocation plan
Justices give nod to turn former hospital into rehab facility
Crittenden County moved a step closer to finding a long term tenant to occupy the former Crittenden Regional Hospital building.
The Quorum court voted 9-1 to lease the building to Department of Arkansas Community Corrections for a licensed treatment center for non violent female inmates.
ACC is proposing to relocate one of its treatment centers in Pine Bluff to West Memphis. The center would house 350 female inmates and bring 138 new jobs to the county.
“This has been a long process,” said Judge Woody Wheeless. “This has been going on for a year and a half. We worked hard to find somebody who would be a suitable tenant in there, and I believe the Quorum Court felt like this was a suitable tenant.”
Justice Claude “Shorty” Steele, who cast the lone no vote, said the majority of the calls he got from residents were against the project.
“I had a lot of people contact me,” Steele said. “I felt like they needed somebody to speak for them. And so I did.”
Kevin Murphy, Chief Deputy Director of Arkansas Community Corrections, said the move will save the state millions of dollars.
The facility in Pine Bluff is currently housed in 35 buildings in a former boys training community that dates back to the 1900s and is in poor shape.
The buildings need about $10 million in repair work, according to Murphy.
“We’ve tried to maintain it for years and years,” Murphy said. “But the building has just outlived its usefulness.”
Officials in Pine Bluff are fighting to keep the center in their city and have petitioned Gov. Asa Hutchinson to intervene on their behalf.
“All of the mayors in all of our facilities will fight tooth and nail to keep us,” Murphy said. “The mayor of Pine Bluff is a good friend of ours and she would love to keep us.”
The facility would have a payroll of $6 million and bring 138 jobs averaging $25,000 to $52,000 to West Memphis.
Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014 and declared bankruptcy.
The county has already spent over $1 million to keep the utilities on and has been scrambling to find a new tenant to occupy the building.
Many residents who spoke at the meeting said they were concerned about safety and the perception of having a jail in the city would have on West Memphis.
“West Memphis has always been known for the dog track and truck stops,” said resident Todd Allen.
“If you pass this we will be a dog track, truck stop, and a prison. I would ask you to do your due diligence and make sure you are doing the right thing for West Memphis.”
Resident Shanna Crittenden urged justices to take more time to find a better use for the building.
“I don’t think they (ACC) are bad,” Crittenden said.
“I think all of us are for rehabilitation. But I’m not sure all of the facts have been presented. I don’t know why we are going full force into making a quick decision on it. I think it is railroad fast because we want to get rid of it. I would just ask that you take more time.”
Tammy Bell added that she is concerned about the negative impacts the facility would have on the neighborhood.
“The program is great,” Bell said. “I just don’t want it in my city center.”
Resident Steve Lackey, who spoke in favor of leasing it to ACC, said the money coming in is all “new” money and will be a much needed “shot in the arm” for West Memphis.
“If you tell me you are going to come here and spend $4 million on employee salaries, that’s big time,” Lackey said. “We need jobs. And when that new money comes in to an economy I was taught that it circulates seven times.
And all these new people are going to be renting homes and buying homes.
It is going to rise every boat in the harbor. I wouldn’t think of passing up this wonderful opportunity.
This is a no-brainer.”
Roger Sumpter said he doesn’t want to see the building torn down and urged the court not to delay. “You have somebody that is willing to come in, fix it up, and spend millions of dollars to make it an asset we can all be proud of,” Sumpter said.
Murphy told the justices that ACC has $650,000 in their budget for repairs and that they would make the necessary repairs to the building.
The building needs a new roof and has an old and inefficient boiler system.
“There are some repairs that have to be made,” Murphy said. “We do have funding for that.”
Murphy said they also plan to fix the area that was damaged by a fire.
“They did a good job of studding it out,” Murphy said. “They’ve already got everything other than running electricity. The duct work is there. The toilet and shower bases are there.
All we would have to do is put up the sheet rock and finish it out. And we are prepared to do this.”
As far as safety concerns, Murphy said their six facilities statewide have a 72 percent success rate compared to 52 percent recidivism rate for the Department of Corrections.
The facility would not have a fence around it and the females would not be allowed outside without supervision.
Murphy said he knows of only one instance where an inmate has walked away from one of their facilities.
“We’ve never had a police call at any of our facilities,” Murphy said. “We control them very well. Our staff is well trained. They do a very good job. And what is hanging over their head is prison, which is a pretty good deterrent for them committing any kind of crime. All of our facilities are good neighbors. We are typically recruited into communities because of the job we do.”
Murphy said there also is no safety concerns with visitors.
The women average about 40 visits per week and all visitors are screened and must pass a background check.
“We want them to visit,” said Director Sharon Sharpe. “They are good people who want to help the families or they wouldn’t be here. And they will also be spending money here.”
Justice Vickie Robertson, who voted in favor of the proposal, said she was tired of throwing tax money away on the building with nothing to show for it.
“I want all of the citizens to know, we’ve heard you,” Robertson said. “While it seems like a last minute thing to some of you, we have been crunching the numbers. And anyone who knows me knows I am a numbers person. I handle everyone’s money like it is mine. I don’t waste my money and I don’t waste anybody else’s. It has been really hard on me to spend a million dollars over the last year and a half that hospital has been closed and we have nothing to show for it. I tell people I cry if I am late with my gas bill and have to pay that extra three dollars because there is nothing you get for that money. That’s the same way I feel about tearing it down. It would be a hardship spending $3 million to tear down a facility and then you have nothing to show for it. At least we are making an effort to put somebody in there and get some additional money.”
Justice Ronnie Sturch said he called several communities that have an ACC facility in their community and did not hear one negative comment about them.
“Their final words they said to me every one of them as if you don’t want it, we want it,” Sturch said.
“They all said this has been one of the greatest things that have ever happened to their city.”
Sturch said none of those communities have experienced any negative impact on economic development.
The facility in Fayetteville has an apartment complex behind it and across the street on Dixon Ave. there is a new office building and bank, Sturch said.
“There has been no economic development detriment at all with the facility being there,” Sturch said.
“The mayor of Osceola has said it hasn’t been a deterrent to economic development. He said they have had a boom in economic growth. All I am seeing is positive things out of this.”
The court approved a 10 year lease for the building.
In exchange for not paying any rent, ACC will be responsible for making all repairs to the building.
ACC will next need the approval of the West Memphis Planning and Development Committee and Design and Review Board for a special use permit.
“This is just one step,” Wheeless said. “We have worked hard to find something. We want to see some economic development growth here and we know this is going to open up a lot of opportunities for this county.”
By Mark Randall