07/13/06 — $145.5M approved for Cherry Hospital

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$145.5M approved for Cherry Hospital

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 13, 2006 1:57 PM

Gov. Mike Easley's signature made it official Tuesday -- a new, $145.5 million Cherry Hospital is coming to Wayne County.

The "long shot" bill that N.C. Sen. John Kerr III, D-Wayne, and co-sponsor Sen. Martin Nesbit Jr., D-Buncombe, introduced at the General Assembly in May is now law.

"Yes sir, it is law," Kerr said Wednesday. "It's a done deal. Now we've just got to do a good job in monitoring the project."

Kerr said receiving the OK will bring "great possibilities and opportunities" to future patients, staff and residents.

"We think this is very good for Wayne and surrounding counties," Kerr said, adding a new Cherry might create as many as 1,000 new jobs. "We're very excited for everyone who was and will be involved in this project."

Kerr added receiving the OK from the House, Senate and Easley shows the state's commitment to fighting mental illness across the board.

"I think we have an obligation to reach out to our people who can't help themselves," he said. "And that's what we're doing."

Cherry Director Dr. Jack St. Clair said his staff has been ready and waiting for an announcement since they learned that legislators were considering the massive funding package.

"We have been on pins and needles for several weeks now," he said. "While everybody was excited about the possibility, I tried not to get my hopes up."

This morning, St. Clair added he was very pleased that the General Assembly recognized the pressing need for updating the facilities.

"I'm just delighted that we have got an opportunity to be a part of developing a new treatment program here in eastern North Carolina," he said. "It's going to really benefit all the folks in the east. I'm really thankful for it."

Other officials also were excited to hear the news. Terry Hatcher, director of the division of property and construction for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the timing was right.

"It really is time," he said. "I'm very pleased the legislators saw fit to let us replace these facilities."

Now that the funding is there, officials said they are anxious to get started on the project.

Earlier this month, Kerr said once the bill became law, $20 million of the $145.5 allocation would become available for use during the 2006-07 fiscal year. Most of that money, he added, would go toward site analysis and other planning and design costs.

Hatcher said planning for the new facility will be made easier by the fact that a prototypical hospital is already under construction in Butner. A few adjustments, including some made to compensate for the flatter land in Goldsboro, will be made to the Butner design, but as far as patient care units go, he said he doesn't see the need to change any of the design plans.

The new facility, which will cover roughly 375,000 square feet, will cater to the same population as the existing Cherry -- geriatrics and long-term patients, Hatcher said. But instead of multiple buildings scattered over a large area, the new hospital will be under one roof.

Officials are looking to build on space adjacent to the existing facility, Hatcher said, adding that because the area was affected by flooding following Hurricane Floyd, it would not make sense to build a new hospital on the same spot. As to what will happen to the existing buildings, Hatcher said it was too soon to speculate.

Kerr said he hopes the state will consider donating some of the buildings to Goldsboro and Wayne County -- or selling them cheap. Three or four are in good condition and could provide much-needed extra space for city and county officials, he added.

Hatcher said new construction at Cherry is definitely needed.

"If you look at the oldest of the hospitals, which is being taken care of by Butner, Dorothea Dix had buildings built in the 1850s. Cherry Hospital, you have some built in the late 1800s. I think we have got one building built in the 1960s," he said.

While a newer facility will have a more modern appearance, it will also be more efficient for the staff, he said, mentioning amenities including a centralized nursing station and separate day treatment areas.

Now that funds have been approved, Hatcher said it's just a matter of getting authorization from the state treasurer, which could come as soon as this fall. The process from beginning to end -- design to construction -- is estimated to take 42 months, he said.

"We'll try to do it as fast as we possibly can," Hatcher said. "I would like to have this done as soon as possible. We're ready to go."