What's the latest with the Central State buildings demolition story?
The Saporta Report, an Atlanta-based "civic journalism" news website, has been all over the story about the proposed demolitions of three historic buildings around Central State Hospital's main campus since the news broke last fall.
Saporta Report posted an update on Tuesday, calling into question how genuine and honest the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) has been during the entire process. DBHDD is the owner of the most of the old properties around Central State, including the Jones, Walker and Green buildings, which are scheduled to be demolished "at some point this fall," according to the agency.
"DBHDD" already wan't a favorite acronym around Milledgeville and Baldwin County, as DBHDD was the state agency that championed and executed the downsizing of Central State Hospital, which began in 2009 and resulted in more than 1,000 job losses. Now, 14 years later, DBHDD has found a new way to not endear itself to Milledgeville by remaining deadset on demolishing the three historic buildings that surround the pecan grove.
Earlier this summer, a DBHDD spokesperson wrote in an email to a reporter that "DBHDD explored in-depth the alternatives on these properties...Ultimately, it was determined that demolition was the only viable option to mitigate the significant and potentially deadly risk these buildings pose to the public and to create a path for the property to be revitalized.”
The key phrase in there is "in-depth alternatives." As it turns out, the "in-depth alternatives" that DBHDD "explored" consisted of one phone call, a "single, undocumented phone call with an unnamed expert," according to Saporta Report. It turns out that that one phone call was the source of DBHDD's numbers, the ones claiming that preserving the facades of the three historic buildings would cost $10 million. Wrote DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner in a letter to a group of preservationists earlier this summer:
In the last several months, we have weighed our options for this property. Unfortunately, preserving these buildings is simply cost prohibitive for the Department. Our team has been advised that a study on preserving the facades would cost upward of $300,000 and facade preservation would cost more than $10 Million.
When pressed by Saporta Report, a DBHDD spokesperson replied with "we did briefly explore the possibility of salvaging the facades of the building. That consisted of a consultive telephone call with an experienced professional in the field. To my knowledge, there was no documentation of that phone call."
The Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority, which "is chartered with bringing life back to the Campus through an array of economic development tools while establishing strategic partnerships," apparently doesn't have much of an appetite to fight to save the buildings and/or the facades of the buildings. Johnny Grant, a former state senator and current chairman of the CSHLRA, addressed the demolition issue during a meeting last month.
“I’d like to remind the people who are here that this is not a decision that the Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority made, nor do we have any direct way that we can change that,” he said. “We have a voice just as you might have a voice, but we’re not empowered to make any changes in that executive order or whatever plans the Department of Behavioral Health has.
“There have been very little, if no activity or interest, in any of those larger buildings. These decisions were not ultimately made by this authority. They were made by people at the state level with the Department of Behavioral Health...While every one of these members on the board would like to preserve as much history as possible, there comes a day when you realize that a lot of these buildings are not economically feasible."
After Gov. Brian Kemp signed a pair of executive orders in late July authorizing the demolitions of the three buildings, Baldwin2K News reached out to Walter Reynolds, someone with a very unique perspective on the situation. Reynolds was the interim executive director of the CSHLRA between July 2021 and October 2022 and someone with multiple family members who worked at Central State over the years. Reynolds told Baldwin2k News that safety concerns and potential legal liabilities were the reasons why DBHDD is so enthusiastic about demolishing the three buildings.
"The folks that are wanting to raze the buildings are worried that it's a public safety hazard. For the urban explorers and ghost hunters, it's an incredibly dangerous place. There are places in the Jones Building where the ceiling is completely detaching," he said.
So, if trespassers and Youtubers and ghost hunters are the primary concern, why not just buy a bunch of plywood and board up all of the accessible doors and windows? Baldwin2k wanted to know the answer to this, so it asked Reynolds.
"Those were actually discussions that were had in the past," he said. "I would think that it would be a lot more cost-effective."
Reynolds added that there are several companies that could perform the task and actually specialize in the area.
"It's basically storm prep. There are companies along the coast that do this professionally, essentially boarding up facilities and properties prior to a hurricane and major storm," Reynolds said.
Another option previously discussed during Reynolds' tenure was "preserving the facades of the three buildings." This process, the one that DBHDD estimated would cost $10 million, based on the single phone call to an unnamed expert, has been done with some aging and historic properties in Savannah, according to Reynolds. It's a process that involves tearing down and removing the guts of the building before "coming in with steel girders to support the exterior walls."
"It's basically like a shell," Reynolds said.
A certain percentage of the tourists and visitors who visit the CSH campus admittedly are trespassers, but the large majority are not. It's a relatively common sight to see people with out-of-county license plates walking around and exploring the perimeter of the buildings with cameras. The local CVB also offers Central State trolley tours. Without the Green, Walker and Jones buildings, the CSH front campus will be a much less interesting and photogenic place. In terms of the way that the three buildings frame the pecan grove, much of its charm will be lost.
Then, there's also the historical aspect. The CSH campus initially was put on Georgia Trust's "Places in Peril" list back in 2010.
“We have been constant advocates for the preservation of these culturally and architecturally significant buildings, even going so far as to make grants to projects on the campus,” Georgia Trust President Mark McDonald told Saporta Report. “We would like to ask for a reprieve of this order to allow all parties to meet to pursue any avenues to avoid the demolition of these structures."
Also, the executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Council last month sent a letter to state officials.
“The complexity and challenge of this discussion is fraught with emotion,” wrote APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell. “Yet the ultimate loss will be the experience of the patients that lived and died there, the families and residents affected by this place, and most of all, what it exposed of who and what we are. The removal of these buildings will be an erasure of all of that and more...My hope would be that this could be reconsidered, and they could be used as bridges from then to the now and the future we all want for our citizens and state.”
Meanwhile, an online petition back in October 2022 titled Stop the Destruction of Historic Central State Hospital Buildings. Milledgeville, Ga" ultimately received over a thousand signatures.
States the text of the petition: "Stop the destruction of Historic Central State Buildings such as the Walker and Jones Buildings and the Steam plant Central State Hospital is of great historical value to the state of Georgia and is the final resting place to tens of thousands of former patients. Some of these buildings could be saved for apartments or offices or historic tours to help the economy of Baldwin County and the state of Georgia. Contact your state senators the Governor's office or Judy Fitzgerald commissioner of Georgia DBHDD to stop the Destruction of these historical buildings or at the very least hear the people out."