Opinion: Moving Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute still the best alternative for state

Photo By Clint Cooper / What to do with Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, center, will be the subject of action in the Tennessee Building Commission on Thursday.

The State Building Commission may be the last roadblock in preventing another two or three generations from passing before the full expansion of the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District is realized.

The panel, which meets Thursday, will determine the next steps in a plan endorsed by the Hamilton County legislative delegation in July to keep the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute on state-owned property on Moccasin Bend with a new, more compact facility.

It is our fervent hope that members of the commission will deny the plan or, at the very least, determine that not enough due diligence has been done to find an acceptable site off the bend.

What a shame it would be if they do not.

In the main, leaving the hospital where it is breaks the understanding that United States Department of the Interior and National Park Service officials felt they had with state officials when the legislation creating the archeological district was passed in 2003. The understanding was that to return the area to its status in 1950 — when legislation was passed transferring the area into the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park — the hospital eventually would move off the bend.

Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service from 2001 to 2006, told this newspaper's Elizabeth Fite she never would have agreed to bring the area into the park system if she had known rebuilding the hospital on state property was an option.

"If they go ahead and try to rebuild that facility there or anywhere on that land, it's going to be certainly against the whole premise of it coming in as a park" she said.

Mainella added, "It was the expectation for why we were able to get waivers in order to allow us to make that a park, even though it had non-complying facilities there. I know it was the intent — because I was very involved with all that. That building, that facility, would go away."

The problem came to the fore when Gov. Bill Lee's administration offered in late 2021 to use $276.52 million of the state's federal American Rescue Plan dollars to renovate the constantly being patched hospital. The nearly unanimous response to that offer — including by some members of the county legislative delegation — was a resounding "no": Don't renovate. Move.

Local and state officials over much of 2022 looked at 40 potential sites, and Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, provided a list of four sites to the delegation to consider, one of which was Moccasin Bend. Ultimately, they determined that two of the four were viable options, one at Erlanger hospital. Ultimately, they decided the Erlanger site was too expensive and the other site was not feasible because it was in a residential area.

The "compromise" choice — amid the claim of "no perfect plans out there" — was a new facility on Moccasin Bend.

We, of course, are not privy to all the information the delegation had to sort through, but we have been told the Erlanger site was near ideal. However, without adequate community input, unlike that in the creation of the National Park district, it's difficult to know what made it too expensive and how that might have been addressed.

A site adjacent to Erlanger, after all, would put patients only minutes from a variety of health care services and would prevent the current near hour-long ambulance round trips from hospitals to the current facility on Moccasin Bend.

Another reason given for building a new facility adjacent to the old one is that building time would be lessened because the state already owns the property. But disturbing culturally significant land on the peninsula could lead to its own delays, even to the potential point of a federal halt to the project. It's certainly happened before.

An additional reason for rebuilding at Moccasin Bend, we're told, is that the hospital staff likes it out there with its tranquil, scenic views of the river. While we believe the satisfaction of the staff is important, it's not so important as to prevent the full expansion of the archeological district for two or three generations.

The State Building Commission agenda also contains a caveat to Thursday's discussion: "The Tennessee Historical Commission has determined that the demolition or disposal of the facilities does adversely affect this State-owned resource and the THC encourages consultation with their office to explore alternatives that would avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effect."

An alternative to the destruction of the 1961 facilities? That, we guess, would suggest the state keep putting Band-Aids on what's out there now. That's even worse than building a new, smaller hospital.

No, the best foot forward is to continue to look for a site off the bend. The American Rescue Plan legislation provides a little time, though not a lot. Recipients must obligate the funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and spend them by Dec. 31, 2026.

Delaying the full realization of the Moccasin Bend Archeological District is not a legacy builder for anyone. We hope the State Building Commission agrees.