Committee still mum on RVHS plans

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 1, 2004

The lights remain on at the former River Valley Health System facility, but the public is left in the dark on the debate over the building's future.

Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital's "Blue Ribbon" committee focused Thursday on small business and educational uses for the building,

but details will not be released for more than a month.

Email newsletter signup

The closed sessions, declining attendance and overall direction of the meetings have left several panel members wondering whether or not the entire thing is a waste of time.

Though information about each of the previous four meetings had been released by OLBH, Michael Stautberg, vice president of external affairs for OLBH, said that a report on this meeting will not be released until after the final meeting in March to allow newly hired CEO Mark Gordon a chance to look over the information.

Panel chairman Dan Bentley also declined comment saying only that it was "very constructive."

The hospital formed the volunteer panel of elected officials, business leaders and community members last June to garner community input on how the building could best be utilized to benefit the entire Tri-State. Suggestions were narrowed to four categories - housing, business, education and health/wellness.

The panel meetings are closed to the public and media because they are considered committee meetings of OLBH. The intention is to allow for a free flow of ideas, not to be secretive, Stautberg said in the past.

Panel members were asked not to talk to the media but several speaking on the condition of anonymity have said that they think the public deserves to be kept up to date on the discussions.

One committee member said that several good ideas were presented at Thursday's meeting. Though the individual would not relate specifics, the person said that most of the ideas focused on educational partnerships with other organizations in the Tri-State.

The panel member said that the overall goal of coming up with suggestions has been productive, but the rest will still be up to OLBH.

"If they are genuinely looking for ideas, then they could not have put together a better group of idea generators," the member said. "All are intelligent, educated, have a love of the city and a genuine desire for the welfare of that building and its uses."

Several other panel members have questioned the real value of the meetings saying they believe the entire concept was nothing more than a public relations ploy.

"Personally, I feel they have tied our hands initially by saying that we can't (propose) anything that would be competing with Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital," one member said. "They have been steering us in certain directions."

Another panel member agreed by saying that part of the problem is that questions about why the hospital closed and why it was not reopened were never allowed to be discussed.

"They will only allow you to say whatever they want to hear. They won't talk about the past," the member said. "I think that what they want the ultimate answer to be is that nothing will be done with the hospital."

Other panel members were more positive about the results of the meetings.

"I don't think it has been a waste of time," former Ironton health commissioner Charlie Kouns said. "It lets people at Bellefonte know what the average person here thinks about the facility."

Kouns did not attend the recent meeting but said he has made it clear that he would like to see the building used as a training facility for nurses and other medical services.

After the final meeting, the panel will recommend to the hospital the most viable ideas that have come from the five previous meetings. OLBH officials will then take these suggestions, review them and determine the best option, Stautberg has said.

OLBH purchased the facilities located at 2228 S. Ninth St. in September 2002 for $5 million. The Russell, Ky.-based company has been questioned by the public and local leaders for the decision not to reopen the hospital. OLBH officials insist that the building was in worse shape than expected and that it was not financially feasible to open.

The company did open an urgent care center in the Ironton Hills Shopping Center. OLBH announced plans to move nearly 50 jobs from Kentucky to the Ironton City Center but that deal has not been finalized.

If a deal is not reached within the next two months, the city may lose $150,000 in state grants that was to be used to finance the project.