Hospital's presumed site raises complaints

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – Several Lafayette County and city of Oxford officials say constituents are upset over the presumed location for a proposed new $250 million to 300 million regional referral hospital.
Those officials add, however, that they have only limited influence over the issue.
Memphis-based Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. holds a 23-year lease on the current hospital, which is owned jointly by the county and city, and has negotiated for two years to buy both the building and the state-issued Certificate of Need. Its offer includes more than $30 million each to the city and the county.
Dick Cowart, a spokesman for Baptist, acknowledged to city and county officials last month that the system had bought 107 acres on Highway 6, west of the Oxford city limits. The reactions have leaned toward the negative – sometimes strongly.
“Some people think we shouldn’t sell the hospital at all,” said Oxford Ward 3 Alderwoman Janice Antonow. “Some think we should, and let Baptist pick its location. Then I’ve heard from a lot of people who are upset about the location on Highway 6.”
Lafayette County District 2 Supervisor Johnny Morgan said he’s getting phone calls on the issue.
“A lot of people have called me and expressed their dissatisfaction with the location of the hospital,” he said.
District 1 Supervisor Mike Pickens said, “The ones I have talked to, they’re not pleased with the location.”
Objections to the presumed front-runner in the relocation race have ranged from the hospital’s six-mile distance from most of the existing health care community to traffic bottlenecks that could halt ambulances to the hospital’s potential drain of development from existing parts of the city.
One group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Oxford’s Long-Term Care Facilities’ Residents, contended in an ad in the March 2 Daily Journal that the State Veterans Home, North Mississippi Regional Center and three other retirement and nursing facilities were intentionally located near the hospital.
“The residents within our five long-term care facilities and their families and friends deserve to be shown more respect and sensitivity than locate the new hospital some 6-7 miles away on the busiest highway into Oxford,” the advertisement stated.
Another group’s website, www.oxfordlcc.com, asks, “If you or someone you love, a veteran in the VA, a child in school, or (insert your concerned party) needs emergency care, where would you prefer the hospital to be?” noting choices in east Oxford with multiple access roads or the Highway 6 West site “with only one access road.”
Is it or isn’t it?
Cowart said during his Feb. 22 presentation to city and county officials that the hospital system bought the site on Highway 6 West without any commitment to build there. He said both an inability to secure a long-term option on the site and the need to quell land speculation figured into the purchase.
“At this point it is important for Baptist that the market stay rational, that it stay even,” Cowart said. “I know one of the other sites has reduced their price just reading what’s in the newspaper, without knowing anything [else].”
Murray Avent, an owner of the Oxford Commons development off Highway 7 North, said that explanation leaves much to be desired.
“Long before we entered into negotiations with the Oxford School Board for land for the new high school, we did offer Baptist free land in an interest of making a new hospital for this community a reality,” he said. “To our surprise, that offer was countered by Baptist with what we felt were such strict requirements and restrictions on us, the donors, and on our future development that no agreement was reached.
“We have never had any discussions with Baptist in regards to price, nor, to my knowledge, have any other landowners that also have sites, like our own, more suitable for the new hospital than the land they purchased so far out west on Highway 6,” Avent said. “That is why this ‘stabilization of the market’ argument that the Baptist officials are now making is such a mystery to us.”
Baptist, however, insists that it has changed its mind after buying land on several occasions.
“Baptist Memorial Health Care owned land at Poplar and Johnson Road in Germantown that was later sold to Germantown Baptist Church,” spokeswoman Ashley Compton said about the Tennessee property. “It was determined that Poplar and Shea Road in Collierville was a better hospital location for Baptist Memorial Hospital-Collierville.”
She added that the corporation bought property in southeast Memphis for its headquarters before deciding to build closer to two of its hospitals.
Lafayette supervisors will get an update on progress toward a memorandum of understanding regarding the hospital sale at their regular 9 a.m. meeting on Monday, and Oxford’s mayor and aldermen will visit the issue Wednesday when they meet for a 9 a.m. recessed meeting. Antonow said she is disturbed by the controversial location but doubts city officials can influence Baptist’s decision on it.
“They’re not going to reveal the location until the transaction is done,” she said.
Morgan agreed.
“I don’t think you’re going to see us trying to dictate where they go,” he said. “I think you will see a lot of us expressing displeasure over the location they’ve bought.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.