That's the message local leaders got when they questioned state lawmakers at the Rome Floyd Chamber's post-legislative breakfast Tuesday at The Palladium. The 132-acre former mental hospital on North Division Street is developed with clinics, laboratories, offices and residences. Rome city officials have tried to gain control of the property since the state closed the facility in 2011.
"We've got to repurpose that site," said Pete McDonald, president of Georgia Northwestern Technical College. "How do we go forward; what strategy do we need?"
It's an important issue for the community, Sen. Chuck Hufstetler acknowledged. But he and the rest of the legislative delegation — which includes Republican Reps. Katie Dempsey of Rome, Eddie Lumsden of Armuchee and Christian Coomer of Cartersville — had no immediate solution to the impasse with the state.
"The next administration will have to tackle that," Hufstetler said. "When you spend more money maintaining a building than you could have sold it for ... we need to change the rules."
The state has been paying about $1 million a year to keep up the shuttered buildings and grounds. An appraisal put the value between $6 million and $10 million, and Hufstetler noted that Rome was offered the lowest price. But there's also about $3.5 million in debt attached to the property, from bonds issued to make improvements before the facility was closed.
Laura Citron, director of business development for Highland Rivers Health, suggested what many in the community have been saying — using it as a medical campus for the behavioral health and developmental disability services that have replaced and expanded what the old hospital provided. Highland Rivers spokesman Mike Mullet confirmed Wednesday that the space would be well-used.
"All of our facilities are at capacity right now because there's just so much need," Mullet said.
Dempsey said a state agency could take over the property, but it can't be transferred to an outside entity until the bond debt is paid in full.
"I hope one day we'll have a bigger, better facility for Highland Rivers," Dempsey said. "We can't do anything now, but there will be a new team next year."
Meanwhile, the Rome Floyd Chamber is trying to find a buyer with a redevelopment plan that would benefit the community. It's actively marketing the site; advertising its location next to a rail line and its 66 buildings, including a chapel, pharmacy and gym. Dempsey said that provides some element of local control.
"The state could sell it to someone but instead is maintaining it ... We could wait it out, until the bonding is over," she said.