STORY UPDATE AT THE DAILY PULSE
Last Thursday, between 20 and 30 protesters spent an afternoon at the intersection of Vanosdale Road and Middlebrook Pike hoisting their signs high, handing out fliers to drivers who dared to pause long enough to ask for one in traffic, and waving at their neighbors as they drove by. Some drivers looked on quizzically, others smiled, waved, or showed a thumbs up to the small crowd. One boy on the bus home from Bearden Middle School shouted from a window, "I agree with you!"
Some protesters sat in their lawn chairs, propping up signs reading "No New Tennova Hospital" against their knees. A few stood on one of the four corners of the intersection the whole time. The group of mostly retirees, led by West Hills resident Rocky Swingle, were pretty clear about why they were out there.
"We want them to not build this hospital," Swingle says plainly.
Just across the street toward Old Weisgarber Road is the woodsy land Tennova Healthcare has optioned for a new hospital complex to replace North Knoxville's Physicians Regional Medical Center (known to most by its former name, St. Mary's).
But Swingle and many of his neighbors in West Hills, as well as North Knoxville residents, are not happy about this plan, and were out last Thursday to try and spread the word that Tennova's arrival is imminent. The flier he handed out detailed reasons why he and the other protesters are against the new hospital's location, and reminded people to go to the Sept. 17 City Council meeting, where the Council would hear the first reading of an ordinance to rezone the property for office, medical, and related usage. The group has been lobbying hard.
"We sent 1,000 post cards to the mayor," Swingle says.
The controversy began in early January when Tennova announced it had optioned the piece of land, calling it "one of the fastest-growing areas of Knox County." The 110 acres it plans to purchase happen to include untouched forest, which is currently zoned for agricultural use only. But why purchase new land in West Knoxville, already an area with several hospitals? The official word from Tennova has consistently been that St. Mary's, which was built in 1933, needs some serious upgrades, and it would ultimately be cheaper to build a brand-new structure for an estimated $250 to $300 million instead of closing down portions of the existing campus to renovate it.
But there was a bit of a catch in this plan. Middlebrook Pike was designated as a scenic highway from the intersection of Old Weisgarber Road to Hardin Valley Road—at least until a bill sponsored by state Sen. Stacey Campfield was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in April. That bill (co-sponsored in the Senate by Becky Duncan Massey and sponsored in the House by Rep. Steve Hall) was introduced on Jan. 31, just weeks after Tennova's initial announcement. It changes the start of the scenic highway designation from Weisgarber to "the western boundary of the right-of-way of Whitehall Road" at Middlebrook Pike. That change clears the way for Tennova to build a structure several stories high (its architect currently has designs for a seven-story building) and put hospital signage out front (which is not allowed on scenic highways).
Swingle says he only heard about Tennova's plans in a January News Sentinel report on the matter.
"They should've told City Council and they should've come to the neighborhood associations," Swingle says.
But Tennova's Melanie Robinson, who is the assistant vice president of business development there, says her company has spent the last several months communicating with neighborhood associations.
"All told, we've been to 13 different meetings," she says.
That hasn't been enough for Swingle and many others, he says. So Swingle started a group to present a larger front against Tennova's plans. Friends of Middlebrook Pike was formed through a network built on e-mails sent among neighbors who oppose the proposed hospital complex. The group's main concerns about the Middlebrook site are the increased traffic the area will see, the inevitable increase in noise from both construction and the eventual comings and goings at the hospital (designs include an emergency room), intrusion into nearby neighborhoods, and the destruction of the woods currently on the land.
At a July meeting of the West Hills Community Association, Tennova representatives came to present their plans to the community. Swingle and the Friends of Middlebrook Pike made sure to pack the seats. In addition to the post cards they sent to Mayor Madeline Rogero's office, the group also attended an August City Council meeting, where the Council voted to postpone the vote on the first reading of the rezoning ordinance. Swingle also started a petition opposing the new hospital site and so far has about 650 signatures.
"When we started, I said [I wanted] 500, so at this point, we're just keeping going. A thousand would be nice," he says. He's prepared to take that petition to the City Council, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, and "anybody who wants to see it," Swingle says.
Tom McDaniel, a picketer at last week's protest, has a house at the end of Stockton Drive that is bordered on two sides by the woods on Tennova's potential property.
"I find it hard not to get a little emotional about it," he says. "[My house is] like a peninsula. I just have beautiful trees to look upon."
McDaniel's only (human) neighbor is up the road from him—the local fauna lives closer. He's seen turkeys, red-tailed hawks, deer, chipmunks, and coyotes outside his house. And he worries that their days near his home—and his currently scenic view—may be numbered.
"There is nothing about this project that makes sense," McDaniel laments.
"Of course it's a valid concern," Robinson says of people like McDaniel, whose house could overlook part of the hospital. To address that, Robinson says Tennova plans to preserve 44 acres of the property.
"That's a big chunk of land in the city of Knoxville," she says. "We're working on some mechanisms to protect that land."
Tennova also did a traffic study of the area (as required by the city), and found that "with some amendments, the traffic will be manageable," Robinson says. Some of those changes will probably include some "deceleration and acceleration lanes" near the hospital, though Robinson says Tennova is engaged with the city about mitigating congestion effects from drivers cutting through the surrounding neighborhoods.
Brian Bailey, who is a Lincoln Memorial University nursing student working at St. Mary's, was also out picketing at last week's protest, mostly as a reaction to the lack of public outreach on Tennova's part, he says.
"A lot of people don't even know what's going on," Bailey says. "I just think there needs to be more education."
Dana Fox, a North Knoxville resident, is adamant that St. Mary's needs to remain a full-service hospital since it's one of the few serving North and East Knoxville, as well as counties east of the city.
"No one wants the hospital to pick up and move," Fox said at the protest last week. "They could rebuild, refurbish where they are. Really, [the move] is about competition in West Knoxville."
Tennova's current plans for St. Mary's post-westward move are to continue using it as a sub-acute care center, which includes urgent care, primary care, and diagnostic care. And though Fox says Tennova has made "a basic effort" to communicate with North Knoxville residents about the change, he says they're just telling everyone what Tennova is doing, rather than listening to what residents want. City Council heard the first reading of an ordinance that would change the zoning of the West Hills property Tennova optioned from agricultural to office, medical, and related services on Tuesday night. (The meeting occurred as Metro Pulse went to press.)
"I would advise City Council to listen to residents," Fox said last Thursday.
Metro Pulse contacted all of the City Council members for comment on how they anticipate voting on the first reading of the rezoning ordinance. (If it passes, it will have to go through a second reading before being officially approved.) Vice Mayor Nick Pavlis and at-large Council member Finbarr Saunders both said they'll have to hear the debate before they make their decision. Marshall Stair will be abstaining from the vote since John King, one of the partners at his law firm (Lewis, King, Krieg, and Waldrop) represents Tennova. Council member Mark Campen, though, wrote a letter to the editor of the News Sentinel on Aug. 28, explaining that he is against Tennova's plans since it would mean a loss of jobs in his district.
At-large council member George Wallace, who missed the Tennova workshop Council had on Aug. 29, says "I guess you never know until you get there," but says he's leaning in favor of the rezoning.
"We're being asked if that site is a good use for a hospital," he says. "We're just being asked if it's a good use [of the land]."
Though he anticipates there will be tweaks to the plan somewhere along the line, and that "there's still other pieces of the puzzle" to sort through, Wallace says "I always try to remain open" and will consider all the arguments before casting his vote.
Tennova seems to have had a relatively easy time clearing procedural hurdles so far, but within its parent company HMA, things have been more complicated. The company's largest shareholder had been trying to oust most of the company's board before HMA announced its possible sale to Community Health Systems, based in Franklin, Tenn. If the majority of shareholders approve of the sale, the deal should be done by next spring.
Swingle is aware of the confusion at HMA, and seems to hope that could put the brakes on the West Hills project. "The whole thing is so up in the air with their parent company," he says.
But Robinson says the property on Middlebrook Pike is the perfect site for the new hospital, pointing out that it was indicated by the city to be a good place for office space, and the proximity of other medical facilities nearby.
"It's really just a continuation of the medical node," she says.