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Drug rehab slated for Love Center site

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

Thirty years ago it was a nursing home, and 16 years ago it became a church.

Mike Watkins of Big Bend Community Based Care, at left, assistant Mike Kemp, center, and Sheriff A.J. Smith stand with the sign for the new wellness facility.

And now, once the rubble-strewn corner of Apalachicola’s 10th Street and Avenue I is cleared by work crews from Jimmie Crowder Excavating and Land Clearing, it is poised to become the site of a multi-faceted wellness facility, designed to transform the wreckage of drug-ravaged lives into vessels to be proud of.

With the wrecking ball already beginning its work, preparing to haul off the steel and concrete and trash the remainder, Sheriff A.J. Smith and Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, key partners in the plans for the Franklin Wellness Facility, joined with Crowder on site on Aug. 18 to celebrate a groundbreaking, or more precisely, a tearing down and breaking up of the concrete-covered ground, and the buildings

Smith has long backed the creation of a drug rehab center in the county, and originally envisioned the former Bay City Work Camp as the place where drug addiction could be addressed by treating mental health issues and spiritual hunger, and including vocational training to set them on a productive course in life.

“It’s a promise I made years ago,” he said.

He still has his eyes on the dorms at Bay City, which the county commission has granted him use of, as a possible site for offering training in construction, plumbing, heating and air conditioning and other possible vocations. Smith said he’s working to secure a Triumph grant to do that.

But as a drug rehab facility, the former work camp proved too costly to renovate, and while Smith has secured some private donations, the Florida legislature last spring failed to approve his request for a $1 million appropriation for the Bay City Wellness Center.

This is where Big Bend Community Based Care comes in, along with a third partner, Disc Village, a private, non-profit that specializes in substance abuse and mental health treatment and therapeutic services, including residential programs, for Tallahassee and surrounding communities.

Thomas “Tomcat” McKown estimated it could be two or three weeks before all the buildings are knocked down and the steel, concrete and debris cleared away. "I have the best job in the world," he said. "I get to play with big toys, I get to knock stuff down and I get paid for it."

In May, Woodville Properties Inc., Disc Village’s land-buying arm, paid $285,000 to purchase the property from the Love Center Holiness Church, about twice what the church paid for the land and vacant buildings in 2004 when it bought them from Senior Care Property.

There had been talk of the church converting the building into a type of home for unwed mothers, but that didn’t happen, and instead the building was used for church worship and fellowship after a May 2011 fire destroyed the church’s original sanctuary across the street.

Watkins, whose organization serves as a channel for state dollars used to combat substance abuse and behavioral health issues, said he discussed with Disc Village the possibility of saving the structure but the wearing down with age, and a collapsed roof, made that impractical.

Rather, the plan is to construct a 7,600 square foot full-service center, with 15 licensed beds, where those battling drug addiction can reside and recover, aided by therapy, training and other aspects of treatment.

“In my normal course of business I buy substance abuse services for 18 counties,” said Watkins. “What I don’t have is a facility for residential treatment (to serve) Franklin, Gulf, Liberty, Calhoun and Wakulla counties.”

The only available residential beds are in Pensacola, Panama City and Tallahassee, and even when openings there can be found for locals, that option is not always practical.

“In October 2018, Hurricane Michael devastated the entire behavioral health system in six counties including Franklin County. Residential treatment facilities in Bay County still remain closed,” reads an overview prepared by Watkins to secure federal funding for a “Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Site-based Program” here.

“In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has added even more pressure on a recovering behavioral health system in Franklin County. In July 2020, the major economic driver in Franklin County since the mid 1800's, the oyster industry, was shut down.”

The report goes on to offer insights gleaned from a program, begun in June 2019, in which Disc Village partnered with the sheriff to establish “medication assisted treatment for opioid disorders” in the county jail.

“This effort included a voluntary screening detainee to better understand unmet behavioral health needs of detainees at the jail,” reads the report. “The data clearly demonstrates the severity of the problems in Franklin County and the need for a full array of services, to address the behavioral health needs of citizens returning to the community from the jail.”

The application for $600,000 in Department of Justice funding over three years describes a situation in the county where four out of five people, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, have methamphetamine charges. More than half these people have a stimulant diagnosis considered "severe," it says.

“Being hooked on meth typically means being jailed for dozens of crimes, going in and out of detention centers, in and out of lockup, month after month, year in, year out, a revolving door spanning years and in some cases decades,” reads the application. “Moreover, meth is pulling too many of our local parents away from their children. Like a stone dropping into the Apalachicola River, meth's destruction sends countless ripples onward throughout the community, disrupting families and straining local health and social service systems already weakened from excessive burdens, including most recently Hurricane Michael.

“Many children and youth carry their complex trauma and emotional needs into the classroom, then into delinquency and dependency settings, and the cycle continues throughout the generations,” it says, “While Franklin County had been initially spared by the opioid crisis, meth is increasingly mixed with other drugs like fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, often unbeknownst to the user.”

The report says Franklin is now among eight of Florida's 67 counties with the highest drug overdose rate for the most recent time period reported.

The report cites the existing partnership with the jail, with its telehealth kiosks, as a foundation for growing a facility that offers alternatives-to-incarceration programs, as well as support services including transitional or recovery housing and peer recovery support services. “While these innovations are already showing promise, much more needs to be done, particularly incarceration alternatives and recovery support,” it reads.

Drawing on Disc Village’s capital, Watkins envisions the wellness facility will mark a breakthrough in that it will establish in a small town the sort of residential treatment typically exclusive to bigger cities.

“We never had that resource in a rural community like this,” he said, noting that Smith's continued pushing helped sway the project;'s placement. “A facility is a big cost factor and then you have to have the political will, that this community deserves it more than another.”

Watkins said he believes that the site’s close proximity to Weems Memorial Hospital, the county health department and the Apalachee Center makes it an optimal location.

“I’m paying for services anyway on the opposite corner,” he said, referring to the behavioral health options available at the Apalachee Center. “This increases and improves on what was there.”

In addition to expanding treatment options, the facility would offer professional-level, both degreed and non-degreed, employment and jobs, Watkins said, noting the infrastructure improvement will enhance the neighborhood, as well as the bonds of family strengthened by keeping people in their own community.

Watkins said as plans move forward, planners will work on specifics, including how best to separate men and women. “You run into lots of problems mixing genders,” he said.

He said the existing accreditation by Disc Village will help move the process along, which he sees as culminating in the program opening in the fourth quarter of the state fiscal year, sometime in April, May or June 2021.

He said the facility will have annual operating cost in the $600,000 to $700,000 range, with that money expected to come from a portion of the $70 million in state appropriations for community mental health that Watkins has to serve an 18-county area.

“It is well documented that to achieve a positive behavioral health outcome, employment and housing are critical elements,” reads the report, noting the county is the second highest in the state for adults ages 45-64 who engage in heavy alcohol use, with a rate for cirrhosis at nearly three times the state average.

“Lack of employment opportunities and affordable housing, in addition to access to care, are all significant barriers to improving behavioral health outcomes in Franklin County. The solution lies in providing a comprehensive vocational training program to construct affordable housing while concurrently providing behavioral health services,” it reads.