Deadline passes on buy-back for old hospital building

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   If the owner of the Carter County Memorial Hospital had not paid delinquent city and county taxes as well as a penalty assessed, the hospital property officially became property of the City of Elizabethton at midnight Saturday.
   Owner Wayne Graybeal had until midnight Saturday to regain ownership provided he paid off all delinquent real property taxes and penalties under the "right-of-redemption" law.
   The city purchased the property at a public auction held in November of 2002 to recover delinquent real property taxes owed the city and Carter County governments. Legal filing of ownership did not take effect until Feb. 14, 2003. Director of Finance Brad Moffitt estimated the combined city and county taxes due plus penalty totaled approximately $91,358, which would have been Graybeal's cost to redeem the property.
   "That would bring the taxes up to date including the current year of the city," he said. Moffitt said on Friday owner Graybeal had contacted the city regarding the amount needed to purchase the property.
   The building's exterior of busted windows -- some boarded up -- is easily visible to motorists driving along West G Street. If the city takes possession, the five-year battle to remove what many have called an "eyesore" to the city could be nearing reality. The city earmarked $485,000 of a $1.25 million capital outlay to demolish the hospital this year.
   The city has also commissioned a survey for asbestos-containing materials inside the building by the S&ME, Inc. engineering firm of Blountville. The Environmental Protection Agency requires an asbestos survey to identify interior and exterior asbestos materials in a building prior to demolition. The survey would gather roughly 370 samples from sheetrock, ceilings, mortar and other insulation materials throughout the building. Cost of the survey is estimated at $8,000, according to the firm's proposal.
   The 5.4-acre tract, located on the corner of West G Street and Rogosin Drive, includes the 96,000 square-foot hospital building and several parking areas. The city's drive to address the hospital building and property has been ongoing since at least 1999.
   This reporter and fellow staff writer Abby Morris took a self-guided tour through the facility's interior this week to evaluate what -- or who -- remained in the building.
   The building's interior resembles something from a World War II motion picture. Holes have been busted through walls. Glass from windows and doors litter some rooms while floor tiles damaged by water have apparently been pulled up. Empty beer cans and bottles can be found in several rooms.
   Drawers and storage lockers once holding medical supplies have been ransacked and light fixtures have been torn from the ceilings. The building reeks of an overpowering moldy odor while mold-like substances cling to pipes and ceilings where water leaks drip. The hospital's interior temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside temp.
   Spray-painted graffiti indicating gang-related and neo-Nazi slogans are prevalent in one hallway of the first floor. Obscenities, sexual references, anti-war sentiments, criticism of the American government and disparaging remarks about law enforcement officers can also be found on walls in the building. In December, vandals entered a portion of the basement of the old hospital which was being used as a storage facility and set fires which damaged both the materials in storage as well as the building.
   In three rooms on the third and fourth floors, moss has begun to grow all over the floors. The floors of some rooms exposed to the elements are covered with moss and there is at least one room where ferns have taken roots within the moss and are growing on the floor.
   Fertilizer for such vegetation is not a problem. Pigeon droppings litter the room floors and hallways in the upper floors where open windows create a natural coop for the birds. Dead pigeons can be found on some floors.
   The signs of squatters are evident given some rooms have pigeon droppings cleared away with space to lie down. Food wrappers, old clothing and empty beer bottles and cans can be found throughout the building as well.
   The City Council passed an ordinance in April of 1999 authorizing the city manager to initiate the demolition of buildings that are not consistent with health and human safety guidelines in the city. The hospital building would be the first structure demolished under that ordinance.
   The hospital building was constructed in the late 1950s and underwent a $1.4 million expansion in 1971. The county hospital administration entered into a management agreement with the Hospital Corporation of America in 1979.
   When the Hospital Corporation of America proffered the idea of building a new hospital in Elizabethton, the city and county relinquished their existing certificate of need (CON) on the municipally-owned hospital. In that agreement, the company paid the city and county $3 million each, according to a county official. Sycamore Shoals Hospital was constructed in 1983.
   However, the city and county still owned the property and ultimately held a closed bid auction for the property with a selected bid of $1.5 million being placed. However, the closed bids were conditioned on getting a certificate of need to establish a nursing home on the site. The city and county were unable to secure the CON for a nursing home. The hospital has been abandoned since 1986.
   According to the property's deed of ownership, Teddy Ervin acquired the hospital at a public auction commissioned by the city in 1993. Ervin subsequently sold the property to Graybeal in February of 1997. The XL Corporation, owned by Graybeal, took ownership of the property in 1999, according to property records.
   What the city plans to do with the hospital is speculative. City Council members and administration have acknowledged that if the property is eventually sold by the acre, revenue received would not cover the city's costs associated with the hospital's demolition.