A site with ties to Abita Springs’ history as a place where New Orleanians of earlier generations went for recreation and healthful water may soon become a different kind of retreat — for people seeking recovery from substance addiction.
That’s the plan being pursued by Daniel Harlin, an interventional radiologist, and Chris McMahon, owner and chief executive officer of Passages Hospice in New Orleans.
They are set to begin construction on the Longbranch Retreat & Recovery Center, a private, inpatient rehabilitation center at the intersection of La. 36 and La. 59. That’s the site of the Longbranch Annex, part of what was once a historic 19th-century hotel from Abita Springs’ heyday as a resort town.
Initially, the two men had a different vision for the property — as an inpatient hospice center. They abandoned that plan because of the hurdles involved in getting a required certificate of need, McMahon said, leaving the property’s future in question.
But McMahon, who is himself in recovery, was struck by an idea more than a year ago when a friend asked for his help in finding a treatment facility for a family member. It was the sixth time in a year that McMahon had been approached with such a request, he said. Each time, he had to direct those seeking help to go out of state.
As for Harlin, he knew of three fellow physicians who had sought inpatient rehab, and all of them went out of state, McMahon said.
They saw a pressing need for an inpatient facility closer to home.
That’s when they decided on a new course: an upscale facility, based on the 12-step program and modeled on places like the Betty Ford Center and The Retreat in Minnesota.
Their aim is to open in a year.
Because the property is on the National Register of Historic Places, the exterior of the annex building will not be changed, McMahon said. The new construction, a two-story building with 25 to 30 beds, will be designed to be in keeping with the property’s history.
At an informational meeting held at Abita Town Hall last month, the partners explained their plans, stressing that the center will not accept Medicare patients or those compelled to seek help by a court, nor will it do medical detox. Instead, they said, it will be a place where people who want to turn their lives around and who can afford to pay for inpatient care will spend 90 days in an intensive, highly structured program.
Abita Springs has a history of healing, said Alex Copeland, director of operations for the center, as he pointed to the town motto emblazoned on the wall behind the podium at the Town Hall meeting: “Where nature performs miracles.’’
He described 90 days as the amount of time needed for a “sufficient life change.’’
“People used to come here for the healing waters,’’ he said. “This will put Abita Springs back in the business of making miracles happen.’’
The town’s history isn’t the only point in its favor, Harlin and McMahon said. Its location is also a plus, being near a big city but remote enough that those seeking help can do so in relative privacy. “They don’t want anyone to know they’re here,’’ McMahon said.
Copeland described Abita Springs as a “quiet enough town to rebuild your life in.’’
But McMahon and Harlin also stressed the need for such services in St. Tammany Parish. They said the parish has the highest prescription rate for anti-addiction medication per capita in Louisiana and one of the highest rates in the country.
People at the center won’t be on lockdown, and it won’t be surrounded by giant walls, but they will be under constant supervision, the partners said.
They offered repeated assurances that the center will cater to professionals who have an addiction problem.
“We’re not taking them from jail, prison or the gutter of society,’’ Copeland said. “We’re helping people like ourselves.’’
They predicted that patients will eventually provide civic backing to the community where they found sobriety.
That’s been the experience elsewhere, according to McMahon. He went to inpatient treatment in Minnesota and ended up buying a house and staying more than six years, he said. In places like St. Paul, “every third person on Grand Avenue is sober, and they are wonderfully supportive of each other,’’ he said.
But audience members still voiced concerns about the project, quizzing the partners closely about security at the facility, its proximity to the Tammany Trace recreation path and the possibility that drug dealers, already active in the area, will be drawn to what they see as a potential source of customers.
“You’re coming into a very special community,’’ Nancy Bernard said. “What is the risk to the community?’’
McMahon said crime does not go up in areas that have an inpatient rehab center. While patients might leave the premises and buy drugs, they have paid a high fee to be there, and they or their families will lose that money if they relapse, he said.
Harlin stressed that for many, such as doctors and pilots, rehab is critical to keeping their jobs. Patients also will have to be medically stable to be there, he said.
“This is not a pill farm. There will be no dispensing of narcotics,’’ McMahon said.
Copeland, who also described himself as being in recovery, said people already live in Abita Springs who have addiction problems.
Bernard said she would not deny that addiction is a problem on the north shore, but she questioned how many of those affected are affluent.
Patricia and Ron Edmiston, who live next door to the property, are worried about what will happen to their home. “My property values are not going up,’’ Ron Edmiston said. “Make me wrong.’’
Copeland, however, said property values tend to increase around rehabilitation centers. He said the goal is to make the Longbranch Retreat & Recovery Center a place with a national profile that will put Abita Springs on the map.
But that comment stirred some skepticism among residents.
“We’re already nationally known,’’ Stewart Eastman said. “For beer.’’
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.