Hamilton County lawmakers endorse keeping Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute on Bend with smaller footprint

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee's 60-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga could be in store for a $276.52 million transformation thanks to federal stimulus dollars under a proposal under consideration by Gov. Bill Lee's administration. The institute was photographed on Nov. 16, 2021.

NASHVILLE — Hamilton County's state legislative delegation has unanimously endorsed a proposal to rebuild the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute on a portion of the 62-year-old, state-owned facility's existing property.

The proposal would leave the new facility and surrounding property with a much smaller footprint of 13 acres under the proposal, although that could be expanded depending on state needs. The state owns an estimated 90 acres on the historically and culturally significant Moccasin Bend peninsula.

Preservationist and historical groups as well as Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's administration and others have advocated for the state to move the institute entirely off the bend, incorporating the state-owned property into the U.S. National Park Service's Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Earlier, Gov. Bill Lee's administration was proceeding with plans to use state-owned property, first announcing that in 2021, looking at an estimated $265 million facility on Moccasin Bend.

But the state has also been considering other potential sites in other parts of Southeast Tennessee. Local lawmakers as well as others are keen to keep the hospital close by.

Letter to Lee

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and the six other county delegation members on July 11 wrote to Lee and other administration officials. The letter noted that the state's real estate division, along with state mental health officials, reviewed more than 40 sites.

"We, the members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation, endorse and encourage the construction of a new facility on the 13-acre site located within the 90-acre area on Moccasin Bend identified by the Department of General Services, State of Tennessee Real Estate Management Division and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services," the lawmakers' letter states.

The letter concludes, "We look forward to working with the administration and the Tennessee State Building Commission in the completion of this project in a timely and cost-effective manner."

Lee Press Secretary Jade Beyers said in an email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this week that the administration has been in communication with members of the delegation and expects to present a proposal to the State Building Commission in the coming months.

She cited no specifics, including as to whether the delegation's proposal would be accepted.

Park status

"The delegation has worked really closely with the administration with the goal of returning as much of Moccasin Bend to a park status as we possibly can," Watson said by phone.

Keen on keeping the state mental health hospital — which serves all of East Tennessee — in Hamilton County, delegation members were looking at a way to make it easier for the state to rebuild in Chattanooga versus looking elsewhere.

Mayor Kelly, joined by others, had proposed an alternative plan for a new hospital on Erlanger Health property with a six-story, 200-bed behavioral health hospital and garage.

"Our overriding concern from Day 1 has been returning Moccasin Bend to the people of Hamilton County and Chattanooga for recreational use," Ellis Smith, the mayor's director of special projects, said in a phone interview this week. "And if the state believes this plan will effect that outcome, then we're supporters."

He said the mayor's office has some questions about access to the recreational portions versus the hospital.

"Our hope and design, which is shared by most Chattanooga and Hamilton County residents, is that this site be turned over for recreational use as expeditiously as possible and in a way that will strengthen Chattanooga's outdoor credentials and build upon its quality of life."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said the site on Moccasin Bend made the most sense financially.

"I guess you could say we looked at all the other locations, and it seemed to be or made more sense to deal with that tract on Moccasin Bend," he said.

Holdover uses

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican who while in Congress led the effort to create the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, said the legislation allowed for four existing facilities to stay — the golf course, a Chattanooga Police Department firing range, cell and television towers and the mental health facility.

"The intent all along was that whenever those nonconforming uses were no longer in that use, the federal government would take the land over as part of the park," Wamp said by phone Monday.

He said the 13-acre site identified for a relocated hospital has some distance from the public areas of the archaeological park.

"It will be properly buffered," he said, adding it would be "kind of tucked away."

Tricia Mims, executive director of National Park Partners of Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend, said the group appreciates the lengthy process that went into looking for alternative sites.

"It's a compromise," Mims said. "Obviously our first choice would have been a complete relocation. But it was a thoughtful process, and if they examined 40 other locations and came back to staying on the bend but on a much smaller footprint, that's going to free up, what, 80 acres approximately, a significant amount of land that will no longer be needed for the hospital.

"Though that's a win, it's not the first choice," Mims said. "But it's a great win regardless to have that land we know contains culturally significant resources to be cleaned up and preserved."

Frank "Mickey" Robbins is a member of the National Park Partners organization and a former chairman of the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute board.

"I know that the hospital would like to move to a site with therapeutic value similar to its present location," he said. "I hope that the construction of the new hospital, assuming it is done on the bend, is done in a way that causes the least amount of damage."

Site history

Human habitation on Moccasin Bend goes back 12,000 years. In 1838 and 1839, Native Americans in the area were rounded up and placed in detention camps before being forced to go to Oklahoma, joining other Native Americans in a forced action that became known as the Trail of Tears.

The area also includes important Civil War-era earthworks and associated resources constructed by federal forces. The 768-acre district became a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 2003.

Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, a member of the Land Trust for Tennessee, added his name to the delegation's letter.

"We've wanted for many years to have the whole bend for the national park," Vital said by phone. "But in the consideration of other sides, whether it be relocating to a downtown site or something else in the area that's served by the mental health facility, there's limited options.

"And," he added, "we've got to continue the mental health service in a new environment. We've got to move this off dead center. So one of the options is to clean up the existing site, tear down some buildings and build a new complex in a far-off corner of the Moccasin Bend land and then preserve the balance of it for parkland working with the NPS."

Vital said there are other considerations.

"If you're going to have a shared entrance, how do you control security? People coming to a parkland campus and we already have 960 acres of national park out there. ... There's some security, (but) is it going to be a controlled security site? How does that sit against a national park unit, the aesthetics, the landscaping. How does all that fit together? So a lot of those dynamics will need to be sorted out."

If none of the other options work out, Vital said, "then we need to compromise and find a portion of the bend, secluded with privacy, tranquility, that provides for the mental health environment and also provides for the balance of the protection of the bend."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-285-9480.