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CMH CEO offers assurances on facility / September 23, 2020

The future use of the old Community Memorial Healthcenter site on Buena Vista Circle in South Hill remains unclear, but hospital officials say it will not be turned into a long-term care facility.

Speaking to members of the South Hill Town Council on Monday, Sept. 14, Scott Burnett, CEO of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital (CMH) said despite claims to the contrary, the property has not been abandoned. CMH continues to maintain and use the buildings and grounds.

As part of its pandemic readiness, CMH retrofitted several areas in the building for COVID-19 patients. The old laundry facility is used to launder reusable personal protective equipment and the former administration building houses pharmacy and medical students rotating through the hospital during their training.

CMH still operates its long-term care facility, The Hundley Center, out of that property though plans exist to move The Hundley Center closer to the current hospital on the north end of South Hill.

Burnett spoke before South Hill Town Council to update members on the future use for the old hospital building located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in South Hill.

He said he was aware that members of Council had “expressed concerns” about the lack of progress on adapting, selling or demolishing the site following the relocation of the hospital to its new facility.

Council member Joseph Taylor noted he campaigned on a promise to find a new use for what he described as the vacant building in the middle of South Hill, and Councilman Gavin Honeycutt said the number one question he received while collecting 160 signatures to run for his seat was “what will happen to the old hospital.”

Burnett said the focus of VCU and the CMH board over the past three years has been on completing the new facility and consolidating clinics and practices in new sites closer to the new hospital. Since 2017 when VCU Health Community Memorial Health opened the doors to its new facility, Burnett said 150 new jobs have been added to the local employment rolls, equaling $9.9 million in salaries being put into the community. They also opened two new specialty clinics, with two more under development.

Prior to the pandemic, VCU Health System looked at several options for the old property including turning it into an educational facility. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, CMH spent time and money to outfit the former hospital to treat COVID-19 patients.

While the site has not been needed for overflow COVID-19 patients, Burnette stressed that the buildings have not been abandoned. Part of the facility is equipped to treat 130 inpatients infected with the virus. The old laundry facility is still being used to launder the reusable PPE, masks and gowns, provided to the hospital by Virginia Quilting Company in La Crosse. The Hundley Center is still operating out of the building at 125 Buena Vista Circle in South Hill.

With 25 percent of CMH’s inpatients infected with the virus, on average, and another 10 to 15 percent of patients at the Emergency Room showing signs of the virus, Burnett said the hospital has no plans to decommission the COVID-19 unit until the pandemic is passed or under control.

“If anyone can tell me when that is, please tell me. I would love to know,” he said.

More recently, the former administration building known as the Pavilion has been converted into dorm space for physical therapists, medical residents, nursing students, pharmacy students and others who are rotating through the hospital as part of their training, Burnett said.

He said CMH is one of the few medical facilities that did not layoff or furlough staff during the pandemic even though revenues were down. He implied that lost revenue coupled with ongoing expenses has left the hospital without the resources needed to adapt the old building for a new use at this time.

Burnett delivered a strong message to Town Council when discussing whether it was appropriate for the town to form a committee to consider options for the site. “Let me be perfectly clear, it is not within the town’s purview to set up a committee. That is private property.” Burnett said if the town had suggestions for the future use of the hospital building, they should share them with him. “I am open to viable suggestions for uses.”

He further explained that as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, nothing will be done with the building.

Burnett repeatedly said, “I’m a man of my word,” when pressed about a timeline for redeveloping the property. He said he promised in 2014 when the decision to relocate CMH was first announced, that he and the hospital board would not leave the town with an empty building. If a use cannot be found, the hospital would demolish the facility and allow the property to be rezoned for residential use, Burnett said.

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