State Building Commission backs Moccasin Bend psychiatric hospital despite Chattanooga opposition – Tennessee Lookout

The State Building Commission is plowing ahead with construction of a new Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga in spite of concerns about a potential clash with Native Americans and a national park plan.

The commission recently authorized work to start on a $260 million replacement facility for the state’s psychiatric hospital there after Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Marie Williams promised the state would conduct an archeological review of the state’s 86-acre tract to determine its impact. The commission unanimously approved selection of a designer and use of a construction manager/general contractor.

The decision also comes despite a finding by the Tennessee Historical Commission that demolition or disposal of facilities there adversely affects the state-owned property. The commission encourages consultation with its office “to explore alternatives that would avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effect.”

Commissioner Marie Williams, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. (Photo: tn.gov)
Commissioner Marie Williams, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. (Photo: tn.gov)

Before the vote, Williams said a search was made of the greater Chattanooga area with the Department of General Services for a site to hold a 200-bed institute to replace the early-1960s building at Moccasin Bend. Some 40 sites were reviewed.

If the archeological survey is “acceptable,” the department will raze the vacant Winston building and construct a replacement hospital and parking garage, Williams said.

The only member of the public to speak in favor of the plan at last week’s State Building Commission meeting was an employee who said patients benefit from the bend’s tranquility and natural setting.

Critics of the proposal, however, said the state should look elsewhere and conduct a more extensive search, including one that would target an urban area, closer to downtown hospitals.

Proponents of searching for another site also argued that when 2003 federal legislation created the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, verbal commitments were made to the National Park Service and Native American tribes that any “discontinuance of non-conforming” uses in the area would lead to land reverting to the use as a national park. The Moccasin Bend area was declared a national historic landmark in 1986.

Karen Stone, a member of National Park Partners who was involved with Friends of Moccasin Bend for more than two decades, said the state should consider the “spiritual aspect of the land” when deciding whether to construct the new building there.

When the archeological district became a unit of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, its mission was to “preserve, protect and interpret for the benefit of the public the nationally significant archeological and historic resources located” on the peninsula, Stone said.

She pointed out it retains “profound spiritual importance” for American Indians with ancestral ties to the land and noted consultation with 23 federally recognized American Indian tribes would take a great deal of time and resources. Stone also raised concerns that Native Americans could file a costly and prolonged lawsuit to stop the construction.

Yet another opponent of the project, Chattanooga resident James Mills, told the commission the site holds “tremendous archeological and historical significance” because it was a crossroads for more than 12,000 years as groups of people began to move across the continent at the end of the last Ice Age.

The Winston building site is the best place to view and interpret Moccasin Bend and its impact on the region, he said.

“I implore the commission to not just look inward to its needs but outward to the bigger opportunities of removing the non-conforming used from Moccasin Bend,” Mills said.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who chairs the Building Commission, appeared to challenge their assertions, asking how separate distinctions could be given to Moccasin Bend Golf Club, a shooting range, a wastewater treatment plant and private property held there. 

Mills responded that some properties ultimately were brought into the archeological district because of their “significance,” and he added that private property owners could be prepared to relinquish their land if it’s included in a national park.

Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga also voted several years ago to relocate the firing range but haven’t negotiated a long-term lease on a TVA-owned property in the area.

Tricia King Mims, executive director of National Park Partners for Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend, made the most passionate appeal to avert the building’s construction on the bend. She argued that the mental institute, firing range, sewage plant and private buildings were built before the 1986 study that created the national landmark, as well as inclusion of nearly 770 acres in the National Parks system. An old federal road and a Trail of Tears route also were uncovered in the bend.

“Moccasin Bend is everything. It is the seal of the city of Chattanooga. It is the seal of Hamilton County,” Mims said. “It is an unmistakable image that’s formed by that deep bend in the river that runs into the immovable force of Lookout Mountain. Everything about Moccasin Bend is timeless. It’s our own timeless landscape.”

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