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Archive for Friday, November 25, 2011

Bert Nash Mental Health Center files plans with the city for an outdoor wellness center

November 25, 2011

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A new type of health care campus is in the works for the neighborhood near Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

The Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center has filed plans with Lawrence City Hall to rezone a 13-acre site at 138 Alabama St. into an outdoor wellness center and a new mental health facility.

Bert Nash officials confirmed in July they had reached a preliminary $825,000 deal to purchase the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post to fulfill “future plans and a strategic direction.” Now, the filings at City Hall shed light on what those plans include.

“The concept really is to have a wellness campus,” said David Johnson, Bert Nash’s chief executive officer.

Bert Nash wants to rezone the property from its current industrial designation to a special hospital zoning. Bert Nash hasn’t filed any formal development plans, but did provide a “concept plan” to city officials to show what they’re considering for the site. That plan included:

• A 30,000-square-foot building for office and clinical space for Bert Nash.

• A smaller building that would serve as a wellness center.

• A Miracle Field, which is a baseball field specially-designed for individuals with disabilities.

The property already includes a pond and a cabin, and plans envision a network of trails to be built on the property.

The concept has come about after Bert Nash leaders had discussions with retired real estate executive John McGrew, who is spearheading an effort to get youth to spend more time outdoors.

McGrew and his Outside for a Better Inside Group previously had sought to build a wellness campus on vacant school district property near Kansas Highway 10 and Noria Road in eastern Lawrence. But school board members ultimately balked at that plan.

Now, McGrew says this site may be an even better location to provide outdoor wellness activities — everything from hiking, to fishing to birdwatching — because of its proximity to Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

“We’re hoping for a collaboration from various stakeholders who want to prevent disease and not just treat it,” McGrew said. “It seem like a natural fit for not only Bert Nash, but also the hospital to use for outdoor therapy or to provide a place for their employees to get out and walk around.”

But a timeline for when the project could begin is unknown. Funding to develop the property hasn’t been secured, Johnson said. He said it likely would take $6 million to $8 million to fully develop the site as envisioned in the concept plan.

“I would say the actual development of the property is still a couple of years away,” Johnson said.

The project comes at a time when Bert Nash has lost about $1.5 million worth of funding over the last four years. The non-profit organization since this spring also has cut about 12 full- and part-time positions through attrition. Johnson has said the organization is projecting to operate at a $200,000 loss this year and a $90,000 deficit for 2012.

Bert Nash is planning to use the earnings from a $1 million memorial fund — the proceeds of which came from an executive life insurance policy on its former CEO, Sandra Shaw — to cover the payments on the new property.

Johnson said Bert Nash leaders believe that the current economic struggles shouldn’t stop the organization from continuing to plan for the future.

“You can cover your head and let it beat you up, or you can invest in the future,” Johnson said. “It is our plan that we will continue to meet our mission in the community.”

Johnson also said he expects the expansion of the Medicaid program in 2014 — part of federal health care reform — will provide a boost to the organization. He said Bert Nash already treats many of the people who may become newly eligible under the Medicaid expansion, but the organization does so for free.

“The Medicaid expansion in 2014 will mean that a lot of the people we are providing services for free will have resources,” Johnson said. “It should make a difference in being able to maintain our mission.”

Johnson said he envisions any new Bert Nash offices built on the site would be in addition to the space the organization currently occupies in the Community Health Building at 200 Maine.

Planning commissioners and city commissioners ultimately will have to approve the rezoning and a specific development plan before the project can move forward. The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the rezoning request at its January meeting.

As for the VFW operations, the club is still in operation at the location. Bert Nash has not yet closed on the property purchase — it is contingent upon the rezoning. Johnson said the VFW is looking for a new home, but he said Bert Nash has not given the club any deadline to vacate the premises.

“We’re in no hurry for them to leave,” Johnson said.

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