Opinion: Support a national park at Moccasin Bend and invest in a new mental health hospital — off the bend

State of Tennessee Photo / This view from the third-floor terrace at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute shows the drive and entrance to the 60-year-old mental health facility on the Moccasin Bend peninsula.

Moccasin Bend is a special piece of land now in the middle of a juggling act. Only this act isn't all that entertaining. The outcome of decisions state officials are expected to make later this week will have far-reaching implications for our area for generations to come.

The Moccasin Bend peninsula, a beautiful geographic feature long a signature of Chattanooga's landscape, holds space as a route in both the slave trade and the Trail of Tears as well as Indigenous villages and mounds. Union troops were stationed on the Bend during the Civil War.

For years, supporters of the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, created in 2003, have worked hard to ensure the peninsula's natural beauty and rich history will be protected — and promoted. For residents and tourists, for years to come.

But local and state leaders have juggled competing needs and interests as well: a 33-acre police firing range and municipal golf course occupy acreage on the bend. As does the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute.

All of these assets have played a significant role in how community leaders and stakeholders want the land to be used.

How the juggling of these priorities — history preservation, mental health care, law enforcement training, recreation and tourism — ends will probably leave some people unhappy. These priorities must be addressed but the current timeline suggests all won't be concurrently.

Of these concerns, the future of the mental health institute is the most time sensitive and layered topic.

Mental health as a priority

The future of the 62-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute is a point of contention. The National Park Partners group and other supporters of a dedicated national park on the bend advocate for the mental health hospital to move from the peninsula.

In late 2021, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's administration presented a plan that would use $276 million of the state's share of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars for much-needed renovations to the aging mental health hospital.

According to information provided by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, more than 2,000 patients were admitted to the facility. About 88% of those patients were uninsured.

The facility accepts patients from 52 counties in East Tennessee, with Hamilton County having the most patients served. Plainly put, this facility is a connector of mental health for thousands of Tennesseans.

A plan to relocate the facility to another tract on the bend is supported by the local legislative delegation. The decision to keep it on the bend and not in a more urban, accessible location (such as near Erlanger hospital on East Third Street) came down to the time it would take to move it to a new site and the money the state would save if it used land the state already owns on the bend.

It is encouraging to see Tennessee showing up for improved mental health care. State leaders have made mental health a main priority this year. Gov. Bill Lee has put more money into mental health services, and legislators just wrapped up a special session to deal with mental health and public safety.

State leaders and lawmakers can prove to critics that their push for mental health care is not empty political posturing with more focus on facilities like Moccasin Bend — regardless of where a new facility might land.

Ultimately, the re-imagining of this facility should be a conversation about what we want our community to be years down the road. We should be asking ourselves: Are we answering questions about the future of this unique asset and the future of important specialty health care services in a way that won't be second-guessed by future generations?

There's potential for the bend but also tough decisions.

Future full of potential

The future of Moccasin Bend, while debated by those with differing interests, is a good problem to have.

According to the National Park Service, more than 9.6 million visitors went to a Tennessee national park and spent nearly $700 million in 2020. A fully functional Moccasin Bend can further catapult Chattanooga and Hamilton County economically — the more our area has to offer residents and visitors alike, we benefit from that economic impact. That's powerful. And the opportunity to protect and honor our heritage and history — from the earliest inhabitants more than 10,00 years ago, to the Cherokee removed during the Trail of Tears to the brutal treatment of enslaved people — should not be minimized. Much of this land is sacred ground. It needs our protection and care.

There's a juggling act happening right now on Moccasin Bend. We urge Tennessee and local leaders not to drop any balls: Fully support what has been started with the national park. Relocate the firing range as soon as possible. Move the mental health institute off the bend and use those federal dollars to create a new, state-of-the-art facility the community will be proud of.