MILLEDGEVILLE - When a small technology firm sets up next month on the grounds where thousands of mentally ill patients used to be treated, it will be a watershed moment in efforts to redevelop Georgia's Central State Hospital, a sprawling 2,000-acre campus on the brink of becoming obsolete.
For years, local officials have grappled with what to do with the massive property that includes some 200 buildings and encompasses a significant portion of this middle Georgia town where local officials cite a 13 percent unemployment rate.
They are not alone: Numerous state mental hospitals in the country have been closing in recent years in favor of a community-based approach to treat the mentally ill, which includes local housing and assistance programs.
"Big cities and small towns all have these huge institutions and are sort of struggling with what to do with them," said Tom Murphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, which studies land use nationally. "It can be a challenge, but there is a huge opportunity."
What's left behind is often a large piece of land and property that once employed hundreds if not thousands of local residents. As efforts to redevelop these state hospitals have had mixed results, Georgia is taking an innovative approach: analyzing communities that have rebuilt following the closing of a nearby military base while bringing in an expert to lead the process of emulating them.
"In 1968, this was the largest mental institution in the world. In those days, this was the engine that drove our entire community," said Baldwin County Commissioner Henry R. Craig, a native of Milledgeville whose family has long been connected with the hospital. "Now that it is gone we're not looking backward, we're looking forward."
Built in 1842, Central State was Georgia's first public psychiatric hospital and once housed as many as 13,000 patients. At its height in the 1960s, it was like a small city with its own fire and police departments, school programs and a steam plant.
Today, the campus is filled with contradictions. Wide streets lined with elegant pecan trees lead to Victorian-style buildings with broken-out windows and crumbling exteriors. Juxtaposing that, on one road there are tidy houses occupied by state employees. On the edges of the campus, newer buildings recently used to house inmates are surrounded by wire fencing. Thousands are buried in nearby cemeteries.
The state has closed three major programs at Central State since 2009. The state Department of Corrections, which had taken over some of the buildings to house inmates, also moved out a few years ago.
The city took action around that time and began to form the basis of the redevelopment authority and hired Mike Couch, a native of Milledgeville who successfully worked on major redevelopment projects for communities surrounding Fort Benjamin Harrison near Lawrence, Ind., and Fort Sheridan in Lake County, Ill.
Both bases closed under the Base Realignment & Closure Commission process, also known as BRAC, and have largely flourished. Fort Sheridan has become a mostly residential community with townhomes listed for $500,000. Fort Benjamin Harrison was redeveloped into a residential and retail community as well as land set aside for Fort Harrison State Park and Golf Course.
Under the BRAC model, Couch says a critical first step was to get the community to accept that Central State was never coming back. Now, it's a matter of getting the state-owned land transferred to the redevelopment authority. Legislation to start that process is expected to be submitted next year.
"The way the mental health care industry has changed in this state, it was not worth us fighting a battle to keep those buildings open," said Couch, the authority's executive director.
Couch and others with the redevelopment authority are evaluating the property's assets, which include a 90,000-square-foot kitchen, once the largest in the world churning out 30,000 meals a day. Officials also know they will have to rebrand the site given its lengthy history. In addition, there's concern the property's historic buildings will slip into disrepair and could one day be impossible to save. The state currently spends $11 million a year to maintain the property.
The state isn't leaving completely. Up to 180 mentally ill individuals in the court system will continue to be housed at a building on campus.
Couch has made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and officials from various government agencies, another lesson learned from the BRAC process. He hopes to pique the federal government's interest in stimulating private sector investment. At Fort Benjamin Harrison, the redevelopment authority went to the Department of Defense and was able to keep its finance and accounting system building at the property, and Couch said the office grew from 3,000 to 6,000 employees.
"It became the platform from which the whole place developed," Couch said.
For other state mental hospitals, attempts to repurpose them have led to mixed results. A plan for the Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., has been mired in delays in recent years. The Urban Land Institute evaluated the site back in 2006 and made various recommendations on land use, including a residential and mixed-use development and a city park.
The new owners of the former Mayview State Hospital site, south of Pittsburgh, have been tearing down buildings with plans to rebuild the area as a residential and commercial property. And a residential community was built on the former Metropolitan State Hospital site in Lexington, Mass., generating about $53 million from 390 apartments, about 25 percent of which are affordable units, according to the Urban Land Institute.
"While you may have various different uses, you have to have a strategic plan that connects all the various parts of the property," said ULI's Murphy.
Tom Glover with Cogentes, the firm about to open an office in the former Central State superintendent's house, said leasing space was an easy decision. It's convenient to the local college where the IT services and support company hopes to draw interns, and Glover appreciated the park-like setting over its current office on a busy commercial street.
He dismissed concerns about relocating to a place that treated psychiatric patients for years.
"I'm kind of excited to be one of the first ones over there and being established as other businesses come in," said Glover, who spent 20 years in Atlanta before returning to the area.
"Especially in my line of work, business to business, that puts me in a good position."