Residents oppose hospital location

City Council tables decision on sending a letter of support until wording is drafted

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The Memorial Hospital staff and board members were accused of ignoring public input Tuesday night by a group of Craig residents who attended the Craig City Council meeting to oppose a request that the city offer a letter of support for a new hospital.

"I think the community feels like, as a whole, this thing is being shoved down their throats," said Fred Shaffer, owner of Big O Tires in Craig. "I think there's a hell of a mistake being made if we don't to this right and we're not."

Nearly 40 people attended the meeting, most saying they favored the building of a new hospital, but vehemently opposed it being constructed on the site where it now sits.

The council voted unanimously to table the issue until a letter could be drafted that reflects the concerns voiced at the meeting.

"We do represent the community and the letter should reflect our representation of the community," Councilor Bill Johnston said.

The letter will state that the council supports the construction of a new hospital but there are concerns about the location.

"I think everyone here would say they're against a new hospital at that site," said former hospital board member Neil McCandless.

The decision to compromise came after more than an hour of sometimes-heated comment about the hospital's process.

The hospital spent nearly $2 million to purchase the property around the site before getting confirmation from the city that it would close Russell Street and before getting public input on whether the community supported the closure, audience members said.

"They bought up the property already," Mary Beaneu said. "It looks like they don't care what the citizens want."

There also was little discussion with the Craig City Council about whether it would agree to close Russell Street or if there were any concerns about closing it.

"How can you possibly say 'no' to a hospital," NAPA Auto Parts owner John Ponikvar said. "It's one of the most noble entities in a community. But I think the hospital board has gone about this totally wrong in assuming (the city council is) going to close Russell Street just because they've bought property around it. I think the hospital still has a lot of work to do. They should've done their homework first before they started buying property."

Problems cited with the location included the possibility for expansion if built at the existing site and the impact closing Russell Street would have on traffic and area residents.

"I know there are lots of available places around this town with good access," McCandless said.

Audience members said the hospital could have purchased property and installed utilities for what they've paid for property around the existing facility and would not be facing huge demolition and landfill costs.

"I don't think we should send good money chasing bad," McCandless said.

The Memorial Hospital Administrator Randy Phelps said the hospital board did not consider building at another location.

"It didn't make any sense to do that from a business standpoint," he said. "We must be close to the doctors. Every foot you move from the doctors diminishes your revenue stream. We couldn't carry the debt in another location."

Phelps said in early public meetings about the proposed construction, community members opposed any tax increase and building in the same location was the hospital board's solution.

"To get out of raising taxes, we had to look at an alternate cost-saving option," he said. "I know we can do the project on the current site without raising taxes."

A letter of support is needed to get the ball rolling on the project. The funding would come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will require community support before offering money, Phelps said.

Offering a letter of support this early in the project would be misconstrued as support for the entire project, including location, Glenda Bellio said, especially considering there is only one proposed site.

"Before we give a letter of support, we need to address the fundamental issues and those are the utilities and vacating the street," former Craig Mayor Saed Tayarra said. "Indirectly, if you give them support, you give them the green light before they've addressed all the issues."

Phelps said those opposed have not voiced their comments at hospital board meetings, but audience members said they have been involved and have attended meetings to ask questions and protest the location.

"I think you should hold up and analyze this because it hasn't been analyzed yet," said John Peroulis, owner of Peroulis Brothers Trucking in Craig. "I think we ought to crawl before we walk and walk before we run because there's a lot of animosity about this right now."

Phelps said he's authorized the project manager to get quotes on the cost of a traffic study, but many of the questions posed couldn't be answered until the hospital board had an indication of whether the funding would be available.

"We may not even need to vacate Russell Street," Phelps said. "We won't know until the plan is designed. We're not presuming this letter of support means anything other than what it says in writing. We're not skipping due diligence."

Phelps said the hospital would still have to go through the city's planning and zoning commission and the council before vacating Russell Street.

"All we're asking is, 'Do you support the concept of a new hospital?'" he said. "If we don't get the application in, we can't go forward with the planning for the project. We want a commitment for funding before we move into the planning process.

"The problem is the facility is failing around us and the sooner we get off the ground, the sooner we get a better facility to provide better health care," he said.

A letter of support is also necessary to obtain several grants the hospital foundation is in the process of applying for, TMH Community Relations Director Pam Thompson said.

"I think we're just dead in the water without (the council's) support," Phelps said.

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