Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said Primary Health Care's announcement of purchasing an abandoned hospice building validates what he has been saying for months — that the organization has had the financial ability to pay more.

According to a Chattanooga Times Free Press story Thursday, Primary purchased the vacant Hutcheson building in Fort Oglethorpe in October.

"Basically they have validated what I've been saying for weeks and months. They've proven they can afford to have paid more (in rent to the county)," Whitfield said.

Primary was paying a $1-per-year rent to the county for the county-owned facility.

Former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell held two lease agreements with Primary in which the organization was paying a $1-per-year rent over 10 years.

These lease agreements contributed to the massive debt facing the county, which lost more than $1.3 million during the 10-year span with Primary in Rossville, Whitfield said.

The commissioner pointed out that the Hutcheson building is even bigger than the Rossville location. Primary has not revealed if it's moving its operation to the Hutcheson building. Utilities, maintenance, and insurance would also be higher in the new location and be solely on Primary as opposed to how these costs were previously being covered by the county, Whitfield said.

Primary "has proven they can stand on their own two feet and do what's best for them," Whitfield said.

Whitfield said he was aware Primary was looking at other options and understands Primary has to do what is best for the organization itself; however, he would not have continued to work on a new lease agreement between the two if this information would have been made clear, he said.

The commissioner said, as of Wednesday, Nov. 22, Primary was requesting the county continue to work out a new lease agreement between the two parties, even though the organization had already purchased the Hutcheson building two months ago.

Whitfield said he would have preferred Primary to have been more straight-forward with him and "shoot straight" about their plans, considering how "good the county has been to them" over the last decade and how Primary has benefited from the county.

The commissioner said he would have supported Primary's decision regardless, but finds the secrecy troubling.

The Hutcheson building is in need of a lot of renovations, Whitfield said, so he doesn't know how soon — or if — Primary will be moving to the new location.

He said he is waiting to hear back from Primary on the matter.

Whitfield said he honored the former $1-per-year lease until it expired in August 2017 and was continuing to work out an agreement between both sides, knowing the rent would have to increase from $1 per year regardless of who was in the building.

Additional interest

The commissioner said he has had talks with other companies who have shown interest in the building in Rossville.

One reason for the interest, Whitfield said, is the limited health care services provided to Northwest Georgia and he is hearing from other health providers who would come to the area and fill this need.

Once he knows what Primary's plans are as to leaving the current county-owned location, he can begin moving forward on negotiations with those companies, he said.

Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at jobryant@npco.com.