The push is on to keep a state-run psychiatric center in Caro, and avoid losing the 360 jobs it currently delivers as Tuscola County’s second largest employer.
The reaction is at all levels locally, from state and county officials to the Caro planning commission.
It comes on the heels of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s release of a proposed 2018 budget that includes spending about $115 million to replace Caro Center, located in Tuscola County’s Indianfields Township.
According to the 192-page document outlining Snyder’s budget, the “new facility will help provide a safer and more modern setting for state psychiatric hospital patients and staff.”
“Over time, the infrastructure of the facilities has deteriorated making the current facility a hazardous environment for both patients and staff,” said Angela Minicuci, spokesman, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Of the 38 buildings on the property, the newest is over 60 years old and 18 of the buildings are uninhabitable, in addition to two more buildings, which closed in 2015 due to their condition.”
Minicuci said the new facility “would be to best serve the current roughly 150 patients at Caro, as well as increase the bed capacity by 50 to address some of the waiting list that currently exists for the state hospital system (this list has roughly 200 people on it at any given time).”
She also told The Advertiser that 130 “new staff” would be added to ramp up services.
The problem, however, is that no one knows – or is saying – where the new facility will be and the possibility of it being outside Tuscola County is a scary thought to people like Mike Hoagland, controller, Tuscola County.
Caro Center is the second largest employer in Tuscola County, which is the largest.
Minicuci said a final decision will coincide with legislative approval of the budget that typically occurs in June. Design and construction of the new facility could take up to three years before it would be operational, she said.
“There’s no question a move would be devastating,” Hoagland told The Advertiser. “It would have a crippling effect on the local economy.”
Hoagland said he is considering creating a report about the economic impact Caro Center has on Tuscola County.
The biggest economic impact, he said, is from the 360 employees that work at Caro Center.
“If we have our chance to make our case, (an economic impact study) would be a good piece of information to have in hand,” Hoagland said.
Minicuci said next steps in replacing Caro Center will include “discussions with our legislative partners as they work through the budget process.”
“Those discussions will include looking at the location of a new facility to ensure it is closest to the population it is intended to service, as well as close to health professionals and acute care medical facilities to serve the patients,” she said.
Hoagland isn’t alone in trying to ensure that location doesn’t change.
On Tuesday, the Caro planning commission discussed the idea of offering water services to the massive site along M-81 near the Tuscola Area Airport. The city already provides wastewater treatment to the area.
Planning Commissioner Jim Willing brought the idea up, he said, because Caro Center currently is donating furniture to the Mayville Share Shop (Willing is a board member).
“I’ve been talking to some people I know…it probably won’t be rebuilt there because they want something closer to the freeway, a better hospital, and they want city water and sewer,” Willing said. “If they want city water, would the city think about building something out that far?”
Caro Mayor Joe Greene was at the meeting as an audience member and pointed out that city water service doesn’t go beyond Carter Lumber, 1250 Carter Drive, Caro.
“They’re wanting a more secure water system, I know that,” Willing said. “(City water) might be something to entice them to stay.”
Ryan Piche, city manager, Caro, said “there are people in the county working on” keeping Caro Center in Tuscola County.
“If there are things we can do, and people we can talk to, at the state level then, of course, we’d like to pursue that,” Piche said.
Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, said keeping Caro Center in Tuscola County is a priority for him.
Green said for many years, staff and patients have essentially been moving from building to building on the Caro Center campus “as (the buildings) fall into disrepair or can’t be replaced.”
“I’m fully in favor of them building another building,” Green said. “But the commitment I have not got out of them yet is where they’re going to build it.”
Green said he and Rep. Edward Canfield, R-Sebewaing, “are doing everything we can to make sure it stays there.”
“They just have not shared publicly or privately that it will – or it won’t,” Green said. “So we’re having some serious discussions with the department about it remaining there in Caro.”
About 40 people attended an open forum held by Canfield at the Caro Area District Library Friday afternoon.
Concerns included potential job loss in the area, and what would happen to the old facility.
Canfield, who serves on the State House Appropriations Committee as the chairman of the subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said it is “my number one priority that we maintain the Caro Center in Caro.”
Canfield stated that he would be meeting with the Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services next week.
“I am going to make a recommendation that we need more than one center” for the vast area that the Caro Center currently serves, he said. “Employees come from wide and far, but they’ve been doing that for years,” he added.
“We’ve lived with a marginal facility over the years in Caro and we (Canfield and Green) think that we deserve to have a jewel from the state come here and stay here,” Canfield said.
He reassured constituents that he had heard lots of rumors, but “nothing on the state level that says a decision has been made to actually move it.”
Caro Center’s history dates to May 30 1914, which it was originally founded as the Michigan Farm Colony for Epileptics at Wahjamega.
According to the first report issued in June 1914 by the board of commissioners and officers behind the institution, more than 40 sites in 22 Michigan counties were considered for the “farm colony.” The commissioners sought at least 1,000 acres.
“The agricultural, commercial, and geographical features of each proposed site were carefully reviewed; special attention was given to the quality of soil: facilities of sewage disposal; railroad conveniences; presence of timber; relation to town markets, and many other items of importance to a state institution,” the report reads.
On Oct. 9, 1913, the commission voted to purchase “the property known as the Heartt Homestead at Wahjamega.” Wahjamega had been settled and developed by William A. Heartt, who came to the area from Ypsilanti in 1852.
The report pointed out that Wahjamega was located on the Michigan Central Railroad and that the site consisted of 1,510 acres with about 150 acres taken out for railroad right-of-way and the Cass River, which flows through the eastern part of the farm.
The property also included six houses, a hotel building, store, blacksmith shop and “ample barn accommodation,” along with several smaller buildings, such as a milk house, ice house, chicken house, and other outbuildings.
With regard to the land, the report notes 80 acres of “splendid beech and maple timber,” a 40-acre orchard consisting of apple and peach trees, and a “large river bottom” that “affords splendid grazing for cattle.”
The report goes so far as to say that “premiums were taken at the Tuscola County Fair on corn, potatoes, wheat, melons, squashes, maple syrup, and cattle,” and that was a factor in picking the site for the “colony.”
The property was bought for $53,500.
Construction began in April 1914 on “Cottage Number One” for about $49,000 – the building still stands and can be seen from both M-81 and Chambers Road near the foot of the “Caro Center” water tower.
The first report says the first 24 patients were involved in constructing “more than 5,000 feet of sewer and drain; have made more than 10,000 cement blocks, have constructed a large tunnel from the power house to Cottage Number One.”
By 1925, at least 10 buildings had been constructed and the farm had a population of more than 800, according to “The Development and Demise of An Institution for the Treatment of Epileptics” published in 1974.
In 1937, the name was changed to the Michigan State Hospital for Epileptics, only to be changed the following year to the Caro State Hospital for Epileptics.
Farming operations were discontinued in 1950, reflective of a more diverse population from around the state of Michigan, according to the 1974 report.
The peak population of about 1,800 was reached in early 1967.
In 1968, state lawmakers amended the intent of Caro State Hospital to focus on “the humane, scientific, educational, and economical treatment of mentally handicapped persons” and the named was changed to “Caro State Home and Training School”. The primary service area was Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, and Saginaw counties.
In 1973, the official name was “Caro Retardation Center” though it was quickly changed to “Caro Regional Center”, and then “Caro Regional Mental Health Center” in 1978.
As far back as 1969, questions were being raised as to if the location of what is now known as “Caro Center” made sense for the state’s mental health patients.
A Dec. 25, 1969 story in The Advertiser carried the headline “State Home Closing Under Consideration” and cited a report from Lansing that said Caro Center was one of four state mental health institutions set to be phased out over a 20-year period.
“The Lansing source reported that the Caro facility is earmarked for phasing out because it is not located close enough to a highly populated metropolitan area. The source stated that the Department of Mental Health is projecting the construction of a new mental health facility south of Midland to serve the heart of the heavily populated tri-city area (Midland-Bay City-Saginaw).”
Caroline Goetze contributed to this report.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com