10/26/06 — Timeline set for $145M Cherry Hospital project

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Timeline set for $145M Cherry Hospital project

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 26, 2006 2:34 PM

State officials visited Goldsboro Wednesday afternoon to discuss plans for the new Cherry Hospital, which is expected to be built within the next three years.

Last summer, the N.C. General Assembly approved $145 million to finance the project to replace Cherry with a state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital. The proposed construction site is a 70-acre tract on West Ash Street next to the State Employees Credit Union, less than a mile from the current hospital site.

Sen. John Kerr and Carmen Hooker Odom, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, were among those on hand to meet with local officials and Cherry staff to present information about the timeline for the construction project.

Kerr, who along with Sen. Marc Basnight, supported the bill that passed through the Senate and the House, credited Mrs. Odom's office with supporting the idea.

"Without their backing, without the governor's backing, it wouldn't have happened," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

Mrs. Odom agreed that the time is right for updates to Cherry Hospital, noting the project will bring "significant injections of resources that have ripple effects in many ways."

"This project -- the programs here and the staff here deserve this kind of facility, as well as the resources here and the patients we serve," she said.

Terry Hatcher, director of the DHHS Division of Property and Construction, gave an overview of the project. He said it has been a "very difficult challenge to try to renovate a facility that was never really designed to provide modern care."

The 374,300-square-foot hospital will feature 304 inpatient beds and services all under one roof, he said. Nursing stations will be more centralized, and the aesthetics will be more appealing, he added.

"It will be open and light. This whole design is based on making everything as friendly as possible," he said. "A lot of light, a lot of space, so patients are exposed to a better environment. "

Hatcher said there were several factors considered in making the design. While the plans are based on a prototype currently being used for a similar hospital currently under construction in Butner, variations will be made to customize it.

Providing a state-of-the-art treatment facility means it must have functionality and efficiency, as well as durability, Hatcher said.

"This (current) facility has lasted a long time. We want the new one to last a long time," he said.

The state will fund the project through Certificates of Participation, with the first round of bonds to be sold around mid-November, he said. Design work will begin in January 2007.

Other elements of the project, he explained, include bidding in March 2008, with construction to begin two months later. Construction is targeted to be complete by October 2010, with patients to begin moving in November. The transition for patients and staff is expected to be complete by February 2011.

"We're setting aside a minimum of 24 months for the project," Hatcher said. "We'll move this as fast as we can possibly move it."

Mrs. Odom said Hatcher has a reputation for bringing in projects on time and expects this will be no different.

Officials also addressed several questions raised about the proposed move, specifically surrounding the effects on staffing and plans for existing buildings once vacated.

Mike Moseley, director for the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, said the state is shifting its current four-region coverage to a three-region setup. Areas will be primarily covered by Butner, Cherry and Broughton.

Moseley said he felt there would be adequate capacity provided by the hospitals, with a close balance between the three. Cherry's original capacity was set at 227, he said, and that has been adjusted to 304 beds with the new facility.

As for jobs, Moseley said his office is looking very closely at the needs.

"Currently, there are approximately 1,130 employees serving about 288 patients," he said. Even with the increase in beds, he said the employee count would remain close to its current number.

"We have been downsizing the staff. I think it's time we look at that," he said. "But we don't expect the workforce to be less than it is now."

Mrs. Odom said she doesn't expect any kind of staffing reduction unless it is through attrition or transfers.

"We are absolutely committed that no one is going to lose a job," she said.

As for what will become of the current Cherry Hospital buildings, Mrs. Odom said no official decision has been made.

Hatcher said there is a process by which the state operates when an agency frees up a property. Typically, it is first offered to any other state agency that may want it. Beyond that, it is open to a wider audience for consideration.

With a rich history dating back to the 1870s, primary consideration will focus on whether and how existing buildings can be used.

"Administrative buildings and other things are in good shape," Hatcher said. "But functionally for patient treatment, it's not."

Kerr said he had given a lot of thought to what would happen to Cherry's buildings once emptied by the move. While the buildings "have served us well," he noted there has long been a problem with the facilities being behind the times.

The state could possibly choose to relocate staff from Raleigh to Goldsboro, he said. But if not, he said he would favor the site serving local interests.

"I would think the county of Wayne would be interested in this being a great industrial park if the state doesn't want it," he said.