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    Salvation Army buys hospital as its home

    The agency will share space at the former site of Clearwater Community Hospital with other social service groups.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- After a few weeks of fast-paced negotiations, the Salvation Army has purchased the defunct Clearwater Community Hospital and announced plans to transform it into a "center of hope" with multiple social services sharing the space.

    The new facility will have three times as much space as the Salvation Army's current Clearwater location in the 400 block of N Fort Harrison Avenue. After the move, the current location will be sold.

    Maj. John Needham, who oversees the Salvation Army in North Pinellas, said he hopes the community will support the new center, which will serve upper Pinellas.

    "It's a tragedy to go by a lovely facility like that in the community and not see it operating as something useful," Needham said. "From conversations we've had with folks around that area, they're pleased that something positive is going to be in there again and the building will be open again."

    The Salvation Army purchased the 92,000-square-foot hospital building at 1515 Druid Road and Highland Avenue on Friday for about $1.5-million -- a bargain price, according to both Needham and the deal's real estate brokers. The property, vacant for two years, was estimated to be worth as much as $4-million, Needham said.

    Remodeling the building and creating an endowment will cost an estimated $4.5-million, which will bring the project's total price to about $6-million, he said.

    The seller, a company affiliated with HCA -- the Healthcare Company, wanted to close the sale as quickly as possible, said broker Jane Dizona of CB Richard Ellis in Tampa.

    At least one deal to acquire the hospital had fallen through because HCA wanted to prohibit the facility from ever operating again as a hospital and competing with other HCA holdings in the area.

    "The big detriment of the property was that it was hospital, and you can't use it as that," Dizona said. "It's in very good shape. I would agree with them that it's an incredible deal."

    The Salvation Army found out the hospital was back on the market about a month ago.

    "They had had it on the market for some time," Needham said. "They needed to sell the property quickly. We really accelerated what usually is a long process for us because they were practically ready to auction it off."

    HCA has undergone a major restructuring in the past three years and sold hospitals that had lost the leading edge in their communities, said HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott. HCA, which was formerly known as Columbia/HCA Healthcare Co., closed the 133-bed Clearwater hospital in early 1999, citing occupancy rates as low as 20 percent as the reason.

    Meanwhile, the Salvation Army had been searching for more than two years for a larger home for its numerous social service programs in North Pinellas.

    The hospital's interior will have to be remodeled and furnished. An endowment also will have to be created to pay increased operating costs at the new facility. Outside there won't be many changes, other than improving the landscaping and parking lots.

    Among the services to be relocated to the old hospital from Salvation Army facilities on Fort Harrison will be housing units for people in need.

    Using renovated clusters of hospital rooms, there are plans for eight housing units for people living with AIDS, 14 units for families, six for single people making a transition from homelessness to an apartment and six units for families who need emergency shelter. The project would nearly triple the housing that the Salvation Army provides.

    Other services that would find space include a mother-and-child clinic that provides prenatal care for the uninsured, as well as offices for Salvation Army probation officers and another group that assists people with AIDS.

    If there is space, Neighborly Senior Services might be able to use the old hospital cafeteria and kitchen for its Meals on Wheels and in-house feeding program, which has to move from an office building downtown that is being acquired by the city of Clearwater this year.

    Another program that needs space is the annual "Christmas Joy" toy and food drive.

    "We're talking to the architect now to see if we can get all that in there," Needham said.

    A public hearing will be required to approve the plans for the Salvation Army's facility, which probably won't happen until this summer, according to both city officials and Needham.

    The earliest a move would be possible would be a year from now, Needham said. At that point, the Salvation Army would sell its 3 acres of property on N Fort Harrison. Developers for the Church of Scientology might be interested in the land, Needham said, but there aren't any offers on the table yet.

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