January 1, 2023 | News

University of Georgia recruited to advise on future use of Fort Oglethorpe hospital building

Writer: Andrew Wilkins

Published January 1, 2023
Times Free Press

The Catoosa County-owned CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia building and property is a key piece of Fort Oglethorpe's ongoing redevelopment, and local officials are partnering with the University of Georgia to determine its future.

A market study and analysis will begin in January, said Tommie Shepherd, a public services associate with the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, and those results will be presented in March or April. Feedback from the Catoosa County Public Facilities Authority Board will be collected then as well.

In May, planners will present the final results and recommendations, Shepherd told board members at a recent meeting.

"It (the hospital site) will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, piece of that Fort Oglethorpe puzzle, so it's going to be very important what we do," Chuck Harris, county commissioner and facilities board member, said in a phone interview after the meeting.

At the meeting, Harris asked about the best way to gather public input, suggesting surveys or a town hall meeting. Greg Wilson, an assistant director with the institute, said institute officials would look for direction from the board for gathering public input, but that input would be better after the initial study was completed and what's feasible is identified.

Fort Oglethorpe has already upgraded its infrastructure with new crosswalks, plantings and bike lanes as part of a plan from the Vinson Institute. A newly-rehabilitated Stable 41 in Fort Oglethorpe hosted a new farmers market all summer and a well-attended Christmas market, and more redevelopment plans are upcoming, including broadening the historical focus on display at the nearby 6th Cavalry Museum.

Shepherd said researchers won't tell officials what to do but will create a road map based on goals -- and the board will decide which route to take. The institute has written development plans for several other Northwest Georgia cities and won a $65,000 grant from Chattanooga's Lyndhurst Foundation to help plan the future of the 31-acre hospital site.

"It's kind of mind-boggling to walk over a property that big, and we still probably only saw the tip of the iceberg," Shepherd said of the hospital building. "And to think that you can come at it with a clean slate and no preconceived notions as what might happen with that property and how it might look when it's redeveloped."

Located at 100 Gross Crescent in Fort Oglethorpe, the 378,000-square foot hospital site now houses CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia and a nursing home. The hospital's plans to move to a new building on Battlefield Parkway have been blocked by Parkridge Hospital since May -- but Parkridge's claim that the new hospital would duplicate services was withdrawn earlier this month.

With the opposition cleared, CHI Memorial has announced approval to build the new Battlefield hospital and that its opening was expected sometime in 2025.

In his presentation, Shepherd said the current hospital could be used as residential development, commercial space or mixed-use development. There's enough space in the building and on the property to have all kinds of uses, and he said it was important to consider the community's growth and needs over the next few decades and how the facility plugs into the rest of the city.

Shepherd used examples of Georgia cities like Athens, Savannah and Madison -- "some of these wonderful old towns that have really knocked it out of the park with their redevelopment efforts."

Stakeholder input could come from surveys, an open facilitated discussion or discussions among officials, Shepherd said, but data will be helpful to decide what is feasible.

Harris said the building could be mixed-use residential and include apartments priced for older residents who want to downsize from family-sized homes. Businesses to serve those residents could be included, too, he said. Other ideas from the meeting included an assisted living facility, business incubator, workforce housing, hotel, high-end residential, a restaurant or a brewery.

Wilson said the first steps are research and identifying a wide range of possibilities, and then community feedback would be helpful to guide the next steps. He was asked by a board member what he thought would be good for the site, and though Wilson said he didn't want to prejudice the process, he also said the idea about mixed-use residential made sense.

Harris said some people have suggested a mental health center or a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, but both those ideas would require buy-in from other entities and funding the county doesn't have.

Stakeholders are the citizens of the city and county, but Harris also said it was important for the plans for the hospital site to align with what Fort Oglethorpe government officials have already envisioned.

Catoosa County officials didn't want to keep the building, Harris said, but this planning process will allow county officials to direct what goes into the building before it can start generating tax dollars for the county again. Planners said one or a group of private developers could be brought in to work on the project.

Macon Toledano, associate director of the Lyndhurst Foundation, said the site's redevelopment is a great opportunity for the future of Fort Oglethorpe. He said in a phone interview the Vinson Institute has partnered with the Lyndhurst Foundation before in the redevelopment of multiple Northwest Georgia cities -- tapping into different departments at the University of Georgia.

"They're bringing the benefit of that knowledge, learning and that expertise to the cities and towns of the state," Toledano said.

The site is big enough to influence whatever happens in downtown historic Fort Oglethorpe, Toledano said, and having experts from the University of Georgia involved will help local officials and the public plan that site rather than have its future decided by a private entity.