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Middleborough

Rehab hospital proposal stirring disagreement

A plan to bring a 72-bed drug and mental-health treatment facility to an abandoned hospital in downtown Middleborough has been met with strong disagreement over whether the idea is a boon or a threat to nearby residents.

High Point Treatment Centers Inc. wants to invest $11 million in renovations and equipment at the former St. Luke’s Hospital, a proposal that will generate 200 jobs at the junction of Centre and Oak streets.

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Town officials, neighbors, and people in recovery packed a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing last week as High Point’s chief executive officer, Daniel S. Mumbauer, made his pitch.

Although many at the meeting said they support the plan, others said inadequate parking, drainage, and security are concerns. Some said the fact that the 24-hour, locked facility would be located near a church and a child care center may tax overextended public safety agencies, and threaten neighborhoods. Some residents said they are already worried about a planned McLean Hospital annex to be located nearby on Forest Street.

Still, Mumbauer insisted, “There is a huge need for these services.’’ On any given day there are dozens of people stuck in emergency rooms waiting for such beds to open, he said. He pledged to work with the town to allay concerns. If the High Point facility goes forward, he said, its patients would travel there by ambulance from other sites.

St. Luke’s has been vacant since about 1999. Developer Mary K. O’Donnell bought the site in 2002 but donated it to High Point, a nonprofit, last year after a decade of failed attempts to transform it. Middleborough officials floated a number of proposals to try to get the site back on the tax rolls, but none of the ideas took hold.

The old hospital building, which sits across the street from Sacred Heart Catholic Church, is a target for vandalism and graffiti, and, ironically, according to some at last week’s meeting, a notorious gathering place for drug addicts.

Mumbauer wants to convert the vacant building into a “state-of-the-art” 60,000-square-foot psychiatric and substance abuse facility that also offers primary care medical services and outpatient counseling. His agency, which provides 775 beds around the state and 1,000 jobs, must secure a special permit to bring the new clinic to town.

“High Point has always been a good neighbor,” he said, describing O’Donnell’s gift as a “godsend.”

A number of public officials, however, including Fire Chief Lance Benjamino, said they have reservations about the nonprofit’s plan. In a letter to the zoning board, Benjamino said Plymouth’s fire and EMS services have answered 175 calls a year at High Point’s Manomet clinic.

At a time when staffing is at 1985 levels, Benjamino projected that High Point Middleborough would further drain town resources and extend his department beyond its means.

Some officials said they worry that homeless patients, once treated, will make Middleborough’s streets their home. Police Chief Bruce Gates said Plymouth police say they frequently find hospital bracelets along the side of the road cast off by patients released from the Manomet facility.

“It makes me nervous to have people with substance abuse problems come into our town and we can’t dictate their release, or control it,’’ Gates said.

He also said there are seven establishments that sell liquor within a block of the proposed facility. “Quite frankly, I don’t want them coming here,” he said.

Selectmen chairman Stephen McKinnon said payment should be demanded to cover extra costs since, as a nonprofit, High Point does not pay taxes.

“I want to be as generous as the next guy,” he said, but taxpayers deserve relief.

Danielle Bowker, Middleborough Library director, was among several people who voiced support for the facility.

“I’m sure many people have a family member who needed services at a place like this,’’ she said. “I can’t say enough about it.”

Bowker said Middleborough not so long ago was prepared to welcome a casino. “Let’s be a little humane,” she said.

“How lovely is it that we could actually provide help and restore people to a balanced life,’’ said Gail Dunphy, another resident. “What a horrible thing it would be if we are not part of the solution.”

Susan Silver, a minister at Central Baptist Church, said state Bureau of Substance Abuse statistics show that more than 300 town residents need rehabilitative services.

“There are already people who can’t get a bed, and walk out of the hospital on drugs, wandering the streets of Middleborough,’’ Silver said. “People will leave here healthy.”

At one point, zoning board member Joseph F. Freitas Jr. tried to shut the proposal down by seeking a vote to deny the application outright. He said he wanted to take the word of public safety officials that the facility would be more trouble than it is worth. But he received no support from his colleagues.

Instead, describing the debate as “awesome,” zoning board chairman Eric Priestly said it’s a balance to do what’s best for the town and also allow applicants to show cause.

Subsequently, a majority of the board agreed to continue the hearing until Sept. 26.

“Everyone collectively understands we have a problem in our society,” Priestly said. “And someone said it earlier. We can be part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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