Transforming the historic Longbranch Hotel in Abita Springs into an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center drew skepticism in the small St. Tammany Parish town when plans for the center first surfaced in 2015.

Residents worried that the facility would drive property values down and crime up, despite assurances to the contrary from those launching the venture.

Now, as the Longbranch Retreat & Recovery Center prepares to open on the camellia-dotted grounds along La. 36, local misgivings have mostly evaporated, and law enforcement officials are hailing the facility as an answer to the growing addiction problem on the north shore. 

The facility will take patients with insurance but will not accept Medicaid, CEO Chris McMahon said.

Almost hidden from the road, the facility boasts a 13,000-square-foot replica of the original hotel that was destroyed by fire in 1865, with wide porches and high ceilings. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the campus also includes four existing buildings that were renovated.

When the center opens next month, it will have 32 patient beds, a restaurant, a yoga room, a Japanese meditation garden and other amenities.

Rehabilitating the property — a $10 million undertaking — is only the beginning of what McMahon intends for the center. He said addiction to opioids and alcohol wrecked his family and nearly killed him before he entered recovery more than 17 years ago.

"It's a deep personal mission to set free as many as possible," he said.

The Longbranch project was sparked by what McMahon saw as a dire shortage of treatment facilities in Louisiana. That shortage is forcing many people to go out of state to seek help.

"I realize some people are doing good work in Louisiana and providing some good care. However, it is nowhere near meeting the need," he said.

Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz has found that to be true in his efforts to help addicts through Operation Angel, a program he started in 2016 that invites addicts to surrender themselves to law enforcement agencies in St. Tammany with the promise that they will get help, not handcuffs.

In its first year, Lentz said, 132 people have done just that, which he sees as strong evidence of how widespread addiction is in the parish.

"It's across all socioeconomic groups," he said. "It's not gutter punks. It's in suburbia, in Covington with our fancy subdivisions."

Having a treatment facility nearby will be an important tool, he said.

He cites the example of a woman who recently came to Operation Angel for help. "She was a suburban mom with a couple of kids and had insurance," he said. "The closest (treatment center) we could find was in Baton Rouge, which meant a separation from her family."

St. Tammany had the second-highest number of opioid-related deaths in 2016 of any parish, with 50 deaths that year, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. That compares with 83 in Jefferson Parish and 27 in Orleans.

The numbers in St. Tammany have been fairly consistent since 2013, hovering around 50 a year, although figures from the Coroner's Office for all drug-related deaths show that there were 56 through the end of October this year.

Coroner Charles Preston said most of the drug overdoses in the parish involve people who take more than one drug.

"This is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is addiction," Preston said. That's why the Safe Haven project, the mental health campus that the parish is putting together on the grounds of a former state mental hospital, is critically needed, he said.

McMahon said he has been "blown away" by the local support for Longbranch, especially from police: "I sat down with Sheriff Randy Smith, and he said, 'We have to stop incarcerating these people. They have a disease.' ”

Longbranch will offer a 30-day to 90-day inpatient residential treatment program for patients 18 and older, although McMahon said the typical stay will be 60 days. He described it as a 12-step immersion program for dual-diagnosis patients, which means they suffer from mental illness as well as addiction. "Most addicts suffer from tremendous anxiety, depression," he said.

The facility will not treat sex addicts, and it will not do medical detox, McMahon said. No narcotics will be used there, and Longbranch will have partnerships with local hospitals. 

A full-time psychiatrist, Dr. Arwen Podesta, will be on staff along with licensed social workers, drug counselors, nurses and technicians, whom McMahon described as people who have a few years of sobriety themselves. 

When it opens, the facility will have 25 employees but eventually will have 45 to 50. He expects to expand the number of beds after three to six months. 

Longbranch will have an outpatient treatment facility in Old Metairie called Longbranch Wellness, which started accepting patients this month.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.