APALACHICOLA – By July, a new state-of-the-art wellness center is likely to begin serving those from Franklin, Gulf and surrounding counties in need of help with addressing substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
The Franklin Wellness Facility, to be located amidst the throbbing heart of health care in Apalachicola, still remains to be constructed at an estimated cost of about $3 million. But with the site cleared, an architect on board, and a preliminary nod to the plans from Apalachicola planning officials, Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, the conduit through which federal and state monies will flow to operate the site, is confident all systems are go.
“We’ve been through the architectural process, and it’s all been submitted to the city for review,” he said.
Connor Ross, the technical principal of Gilchrist Ross Crowe Architects out of Tallahassee, has drawn up plans that call for a 7,300 square foot facility, about 5,500 square feet of that for treatment, plus a second smaller building for offices, and conference room space. The separation will enable the facility to serve both inpatients, committed to a longer-term stay, and outpatients who seek day treatment.
In May, Woodville Properties Inc., the land-buying arm for Disc Village, a Tallahassee-based behavioral health provide, paid $285,000 to purchase the property from the Love Center Holiness Church, which in 2004 bought the aging building owners, who operated a nursing home on the site that had been shuttered for several years.
In 2018, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith had worked to transform the vacant Bay City Work Camp west of Apalachicola into a publicly-owned drug rehab facility, but the inability to secure dollars last year from the Florida Legislature, and the improbability that Triumph grant monies would be forthcoming, quashed those hopes.
“When the legislative budget request failed, A.J. called me, and I told him I would go meet with Disc Village,” Watkins said. “The person who had the vision for this is A.J.; he has been the one beating the drum that people need to have the treatment.”
Disc Village’s CEO John Wilson and his leadership staff liked the idea, and they went to work on a project they believe will serve an ongoing need to address drug issues that plague rural areas but don’t call for people to have to travel to Pensacola, Panama City or Tallahassee to get help.
“Disc Village has a private foundation, and they have purchased the dirt, demolished the stricture, paid for demolition, and paid for engineering of the site,” said Watkins. “This is not a shoestring deal.
“The problem has always been having the infrastructure to serve these people. You have the hurdle of getting the infrastructure,” he said. “In my normal course of business, I buy substance abuse services for 18 counties. What I don’t have is a facility for residential treatment (to serve) Franklin, Gulf, Liberty, Calhoun and Wakulla counties.
“All these things are regional based. There is an acute need in Franklin County that merits the location and you tie that in with other counties, and look at the distance to Panama City and Tallahassee where the closest beds are, and it supports the placement of resources,” Watkins said.
Key players in the criminal justice system, such as Jonathan Sjostrom, chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit, have also pushed for having a facility closer to the area.
“He has personally asked me to work on a facility in Franklin County,” Watkins said. “He felt Judge (Charles) Dodson didn’t have a facility. There’s a real gap, a chasm for people to get help, and the judge has been helpful.”
While the proposed wellness facility is not a form of incarceration, Smith has worked to persuade his colleague in Gulf County, Sheriff Mike Harrison, to pledge his backing, including financial support, for the project.
“I’m very supportive of the idea of having a facility that close,” said Harrison. “Right now we have no options really. Panama City (beds are) being eaten up by their population there, so seldom are there beds available. We have a constant problem getting people in.”
A prolific fundraiser who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his charitable fund – and nearly $157,000 for his recent election campaign, which he won handily – Smith is likely to draw on his extensive base of support to help raise donations on behalf of the facility.
Harrison last year pledged to Smith to steer about $125,000 from his fine and forfeiture fund to the project, although the circumstances were a little different, since that was for a public sector project at the shuttered work camp.
“We talked about that I was fortunate to get a large seizure, and 25 percent of that can be used for a drug rehab facility,” Harrison said. “I am limited on the amount of forfeiture funds I have, and that ultimately has to be approved by the county commissioners.
“I had discussed that (with commissioners) but with the newness of the wellness center, and the 501(c)(3) status, the commission was reluctant in handing over that kind of money, and needed more information before deciding to go in that direction,” he said.
Harrison said plans may need to be drawn up that ensure any Gulf County monies will be targeted to serve their local population, just as any of the counties that will funnel in patients want to have that assurance.
“Almost on a weekly occurrence, I’m talking to a loved one of someone trying to get into a facility,” Harrison said. “I’m faced with family members who ask me ‘Where can we get help?’
“Family members have to pay an amount and nobody can afford it,” he said. “Some have gotten into veterans’ programs, but for the most part they can’t afford (drug rehab programs).
“If the program presents itself to be what I have been told, I plan to support it in any way I can,” Harrison said. “There’s a tried and true and tested organization involved in it now. To me that will help the program out.”
Watkins will be able to direct a large sum of federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) monies, that flow into the 18-county region from Perry to Pensacola that he oversees, to meet the operational costs of the dozen treatment beds he has pledged to support. None of these funds, though, can be used for capital costs.
“We may do a capital campaign to help with costs,” he said.
Because Disc Village currently operates in-person rehab sites, they will qualify for provisional accreditation from the Commission on Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) once they are licensed by the state’s Agency for Health Care Accreditation. “They’ll have to prove the facility meets standards,” Watkins said.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back any start date from his original projection of covering operational costs for the fourth quarter of the state fiscal year, in April, May and June 202a.
“The construction process is lengthy,” he said. “I now believe it will be into the next fiscal year. Now I’m saying July at the earliest.”
Watkins is confident that with its central location at 10th Street and Avenue I, adjacent to Apalachicola’s Weems Memorial Hospital, Apalachee Center, and county health department, “the infrastructure and jobs will be a huge boon for Franklin County.
“This is a significant win-win for the community,” he said.
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Combatting drugs through treatment