Supporters of the Caro Center had hoped for a big, vocal rally Tuesday on the steps of the state capitol in Lansing.
Things did not go as planned.
First, the Caro High School marching band was late – the band’s performance was moved to the end of the rally. The start of the rally was delayed in hopes the band would arrive soon, but eventually the event kicked off with an opening prayer led by state Rep. Phil Green (R-Millington).
“We are waiting, eagerly awaiitng, the arrival of the band from Caro Schools,” Green said, just after leading the prayer.
The rally was part of an effort, which started in March, to convince Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to continue to build a $115 million, 200-bed psychiatric hospital at Chambers Road and M-81 in Indianfields Township. After the Legislature approved construction in 2017 and ground was broken last fall, Whitmer halted construction in March and ordered an independent review of the decision, citing the city of Caro’s $2.4 million charge for water, staffing issues, recruitment problems and the difficulty for family to be part of the treatment of patients as reasons for the change in course.
In the end, the $277,000 study by accountants at Myers and Stauffer in Owings Mills, Maryland, gave Whitmer four options, three of which called for continued construction on the 650 state-owned acres at Wahjamega. State Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon, however, recommended shrinking the Caro Center from the present 150 beds to just 84 and renovating, or possibly rebuilding, the existing facility.
The purpose of the rally, organized by local officials like Vaughan with help from Jean Doss of Capitol Services and Karen Pirich Currie of KC Communications Consultants, two Lansing-based lobbying firms hired by the county, was to convince Whitmer and state officials to resume construction of the new hospital.
While a number of supporters and Caro Center staff showed up for the rally, there were almost as many people on the dais for the event as there were in the crowd below.
Tuscola County District 3 commissioner Kim Vaughan had secured three buses to bring people and had put the word out via Facebbook, hoping for something close to the 300 people who showed up in June for a listening session with Myers and Stauffer staff at Caro High School. There was significant support for the rally, he said, but only one bus was needed.
“Maybe the low turnout is because it is the second day of school and it is a Tuesday,” he said, “but everybody had three or four weeks to make arrangements.”
State Sen. Kevin Daley (R-Lum) had contacted Vaughan to see if one of the buses could pick people up in Lapeer to take to the rally, but Vaughan said he was unsure if the bus would be needed more in Caro instead.
“I wanted to be prepared,” Vaughan said, “I’d rather send them back than come up short.”
Those who did speak to the gathering were in full agreement that the new Caro Center hospital is needed, but is only a part of the state’s solution to its mental health care shortage.
“It is important for us to recognize that the residents of our state are crying out for help,” said state Rep. Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Township). “There is no simple solution to our mental health crisis, but I firmly believe that building a new state psychiatric hospital at Caro is one piece of this solution.”
She cited “Michigan’s desperate need for psychiatric beds,” adding, “It is tragic that individuals experiencing the most severe illness often cycle into difficulty, including the justice system, incarceration in our prisons. It is so harmful to people. And it is just not the Christian way to do this. They end up in emergency rooms and homeless.”
“We face a mental health crisis,” said state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo). “This is not a question of whether this will be enough. Just building the Caro facility will not be enough. We need to expand and invest in mental health services all across the state.”
Former state Rep. Ned Canfield, who play a key role in getting the Legislature to approve the 2017 decision to build the new hospital, said the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget determined the existing center cannot be improved to where they will meet the needs.
“We need a new facility,” he said. “We need to get those shovels in the ground and get a new building built.”
“Fix this problem, finish the job and get this new facility built in Caro,” said Daley.
“We need to upgrade our care for those with mental health issues,” said Green, while also recognizing the care given by Caro Center staff “with compassion and professionalism.”
Hoadley said the rally itself was an act of hope.
“You are here today because you are participating in an act of hope,” he said. “You know that your voices, your presence, your participation represents the hundreds and thousands of lives that have moved through Caro.”
“We are here today not out of fear, but out of hope. That when people come together we can change the course of our state. That when people come together we can build structures and institutions and communities that are bigger than any one of us alone. We are here today as an act of hope and faith, that tomorrow can be better than today.”
Those who attended Tuesday’s rally were unsure what it accomplished.
“We’ll see,” said Caro Center staff member Joe Volmering.
“All we can do,” said Norm Parker of Cass City, a Caro Center retiree, “is wish for the best.”