The state mental health board approved Wednesday the sale of historic Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa to the University of Alabama for $60 million.
Gov. Bob Riley said the action allows the state to build a new "state-of-the-art" mental health hospital on the grounds of Partlow State School and Hospital, also in Tuscaloosa. The board's vote calls for the state to spend $82 million to build the new hospital and to transfer some of the patients currently at Bryce to community mental health programs in their hometowns.
Riley said $22 million of that cost would come from the sale of economic development bonds. Board members said the university has indicated it will maintain the nearly 150-year-old main building which opened in 1861. The white structure is expected to be used by the university for office space and maintained as a museum.
"If we can build a facility that's as good as any in the nation, that's what we should do," Riley said.
The Bryce property includes 177 acres that runs along the Black Warrior River adjacent to the university.
Riley said the land will give the university, which is mostly landlocked by the river and commercial and residential development, room to expand.
In voting to build the new hospital in Tuscaloosa, the board rejected a proposal to transfer the services at Bryce to the now vacant Carraway Hospital in north Birmingham.
University of Alabama spokeswoman Deborah Lane called the board's decision a "win-win" for Bryce patients, the mental health community and the university.
Lane said the $60 million payment to the university would be $50 million in cash and $10 million in building renovation and pollution abatement.
A Tuscaloosa attorney who represented mental health patients in the long running Wyatt lawsuit, James Tucker of Tuscaloosa, said he believes the governor and the Department of Mental Health are headed in the right direction if the result is to downsize Bryce and to move patients into community treatment programs. The Wyatt lawsuit was filed in 1970 and challenged Alabama's then overcrowded, understaffed mental health facilities. The case was settled in 2003.
Some had criticized mental health officials for considering moving patients to Carraway, but Tucker said he is more concerned about the quality of care that mental health patients will receive than where a new mental health hospital would be built.
"The critical question is how a person is cared for and not where they are cared for," Tucker said.
Board member Paul Davis, a newspaper publisher and longtime advocate for mental health patients, made the motion to sell the property. He said he had initially had concerns that the $60 million price offered by the university would not be enough to build a new hospital, but said with the $22 million from the bond sale there should be enough money.
The board meeting was held in the governor's office at the capitol, where Davis said he has sat with "six or seven governors and talked about the day we would build a new hospital."
Riley left the meeting at the Capitol and went to Tuscaloosa, where he held a news conference later Wednesday at Bryce.
Republican state Rep. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa, whose House district includes both the University of Alabama and the Bryce and Partlow properties, said he sees the sale as an opportunity to look at the quality of mental health care provided by the state, but he said he is concerned $82 million may not be enough to build a new hospital.
"Is this facility going to be large enough to do what we need to be doing?" said Bentley, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor.
Bentley said he was pleased the board decided not to move Bryce's services to the Carraway property. He said he believes keeping the hospital in Tuscaloosa "is in the best interest of the patients and the city of Tuscaloosa."