MILLEDGEVILLE -- The old Central State Hospital campus is a strange place to visit these days.
Across the nearly 2,000-acre tract are huge, vine-covered, brick buildings, some constructed before the Civil War. But the grounds are mostly immaculate, with lush, well-manicured turf and a pecan grove at the center.
It could be a peaceful place for a walk or picnic, at least for those who aren’t bothered by the eeriness.
For decades, the buildings echoed with the despairing cries of Georgia’s emotionally lost residents, often dumped there by families who forgot them.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Telegraph
At its peak in the early 1970s, it was the nation’s largest insane asylum. Some accounts say it was the largest in the world. It once housed 12,000 patients and employed about 3,000 people. It gradually declined as new drugs allowed more mentally ill people to live at home, and the state pushed for a shift for communities to provide mental health care.
Once the economic heart of Milledgeville, Central State is a sad sight to some people today, but not Mike Couch.
“I see opportunity,” said Couch, who grew up in the shadow of the hospital. His parents worked there as did other family members. “This has always been a place of hope. It was established as a place for folks who had no place to go.”
Couch is director of the Central State Hospital Redevelopment Authority, created in 2012 with a mission to breathe new life into the grounds. His office is in the enormous Powell Building, erected in the 1840s and one of the campus’ original buildings.
Just a short drive from there, Couch shows why there is good reason to believe the old place has some life left in it yet. A building that was last Bostick State Prison is being torn down. Soon, construction is expected to begin on a new building that will be Bostick Nursing Center.
The privately held facility is expected to open late next year with 280 beds and employ more than 200 people. It will serve elderly parolees who have no place to go.
The deal to sell the 16 acres to CorrectHealth was announced in March. It was the first sale of Central State property since its 1842 opening, Couch said.
He hopes it won’t be the last.
Also in March, word came that a Central State building would be converted into a facility for at-risk youths. It would be operated by the National Guard, to employ 125 people. The state has given its approval, and the deal is awaiting a sign off by National Guard headquarters.
The National Guard touts it as the most successful program for high school dropouts in the nation.
TWO FACILITIES STILL GOING
Two remaining vestiges of Central State are still in operation, but one is slated to be closed.
The James B. Craig Nursing Center, which employs almost 200 people, was originally supposed to close by the end of 2013. Aug. 31 -- less than a week ago -- also was set as a target date, but difficulty in finding adequate facilities for the patients delayed the closing yet again, said Chris Bailey, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
There is not a target date to close now. It will happen when adequate facilities have been found for the 21 remaining patients, he said. The center houses patients with serious developmental disabilities and mental problems, so it’s not easy to find proper care for them.
Once the center closes, Central State’s last remaining residential facility would be the Cook Forensic Hospital.
Cook is a secure forensics unit for people charged with crimes but found incompetent to stand trial, as well as those found not guilty by reason of insanity. That building, along with other support facilities, employs about 550 people. It is expected to remain open for the foreseeable future.
Johnny Grant is a former state senator from Milledgeville who now serves on the board of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, as well as the board of the Central State Hospital Redevelopment Authority.
While the idea of shifting mental health care to community centers may sound good, Grant thinks the state has gone too far.
“We are going to look back 20 years from now and say we made a mistake in closing all of these beds,” he said. “Georgia is still in the process of building resources in the communities to take care of all of these folks. It is very difficult to provide long-term care and supervision in a community.”
He is optimistic, however, that at least some of the old buildings at Central State haven’t seen their end. Grant says there is a great need for residential substance abuse facilities in the state, and he said some of the buildings could be used for that.
BRAC LESSONS APPLIED
Couch grew up in Milledgeville and left to serve in the Army. After retiring, he began working with communities that had been hit by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
He would help find new uses for the former military buildings and bring back some of the jobs that were lost. He is applying those same methods to his job now.
One thing he has worked for is streamlining the process of selling state property. Previously all sales had to be approved by the General Assembly, which meant if a deal was reached after the annual session was over, it could take months of waiting for finalization.
But legislation passed this year creates a state board that can approve those sales. Couch said it will help speed along efforts to sell or lease the more than 200 buildings on the Central State property.
“What we are trying to do is take the best lessons learned through BRAC itself and bring them into Milledgeville,” he said. “We are starting to get some traction and starting to get some jobs.”
About 20 percent of the buildings are considered beyond repair. It’s possible, Couch said, that a buyer could get a building for free if a commitment is made to either renovate or demolish it and build something that would create jobs.
Among the buildings Couch hopes to see saved are the old train depot and the 1,200-seat auditorium.
Old former insane asylum buildings have a certain draw, and there have been problems with trespassers at night, especially college students. However, criminal cases have been made and that has cut down on it, Couch said. Central State security officers and Milledgeville police regularly patrol the grounds.
After the Central State draw down began, some of the buildings were turned into prisons, which helped ease the transition and make up some for the mental health jobs that were lost. However, all of the prisons have now closed.
“These buildings just were not efficient as prisons,” Couch said.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.