A dozen years ago, waters from Hurricane Katrina rushed into the basement of the iconic New Orleans Charity Hospital, crippling the facility and trapping approximately 360 patients and 1,200 staff members. Three weeks later, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced Charity would never reopen as a hospital again. The closure cleared the way for money to build the nearby state-owned but privately-run University Medical Center. Charity was in bad shape before Katrina, and the storm provided the perfect excuse to shut her down permanently.
Big Charity, as it has been called, is the birthplace of countless New Orleans area residents. Many returned over the years for lifesaving care. It’s also where residents said goodbye for the last time to dying family and friends. The 1 million-square-foot hospital was the dream of the flamboyant, shady and populist Gov. Huey P. Long. Long liked to dream big. When Charity opened on Tulane Avenue in 1939, it was the second-largest hospital in the nation. Long did not come up with the idea of a charity hospital. The first was built on the corner of Chartres and Bienville in 1718. As massive as “Big Charity” is in size, it’s even larger in the hearts of many residents. Big Charity may have played a more meaningful role in people’s lives than any other building in the city’s 300-year history.
In 2014, Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed spending $300 million to relocate city and judicial offices to the Charity building. But the monstrosity was too big even for the morbidly obese New Orleans city government and its abundance of well-paid and lavishly pensioned bureaucrats.
In April of 2015, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal attempted to entice the private sector to buy the Charity building. The state received at least three proposals. One called for converting the building into apartments, an extended stay hotel, health care office space and retail. Another sought to convert the building into luxury apartments, a state-of-the-art medical research facility, and a day care center with available retail. The third offer called for housing for medical students, an extended stay hotel and a biomedical training facility. But Jacques Berry with the Division of Administration says previous proposals under Jindal were not attractive and would have cost the state too much in incentives. Berry says the state has commissioned the Urban Land Institute to come up with a plan for the building. The Institute has floated the idea of raising taxes, which would make Long proud. The consultants recommend the state establish a special taxing district in the neighborhood and use the revenue for redevelopment of the former Charity hospital. In other words, throw good money after bad.
Earlier this year, the state used $6.4 million in FEMA money to clean out the hospital. As much as Big Charity means to so many, it’s time to open our hearts to the possibility the building may have to be demolished. If the private sector believes the building isn’t worth the cost of redevelopment, then the state should follow its lead.
The state now contracts with private companies to provide health care to the poor. Gov. Jindal initiated the idea, which has saved the state millions, and Gov. John Bel Edwards seems content to continue it. The era of big, government-owned hospitals like Charity in Louisiana is over.
In the end, what ultimately happens to the Charity building will be decided by a 16-member committee that includes state Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, officials from LSU, the LSU Health Science Center and others. Hopefully, they will reject the idea of raising taxes to save Big Charity and instead focus on selling the building to the private sector. But after 12 years, prospects of a private developer stepping in do not look promising without heavy subsidies or guarantees from the state. Sometimes, we have to let go of our past, especially when holding onto it comes during a time when the state’s finances look grim and taxpayers are already overburdened.
Dan Fagan, a former TV and radio broadcaster who lives in Metairie, writes a column that appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.