Mental health agency considers move to Haywood’s former DSS building

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center is considering moving its headquarters from Sylva to Waynesville, taking with it some 60 jobs and the prospect of dozens more as the agency expands during the coming two years.

The prospect pleases Haywood County but disappoints Jackson County.

"It would be a huge economic development boost for the county from the influx of new jobs," Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said. "We are looking for a win-win situation for the county."

It is anything but for Jackson County, however, which stands to lose a stable of white-collar jobs.

"This is a lose-lose for Jackson County," said Jackson Manager Chuck Wooten, terming it a potentially substantial blow to the local economy.

"People will shop where they work, get gasoline where they work," said Wooten in calculating the costs.

Smoky Mountain Center has expressed interest in the former Department of Social Services building in Waynesville. DSS outgrew the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Smoky Mountain Center has been on the hunt for new office space to house its growing mental health operation, which covers a 15-county area. The agency has not made a final decision, something that would fall to its board of directors. The board is meeting Thursday night and will discuss the options but may or may not vote.

"We are looking at a whole facilities development plan," said Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs for Smoky Mountain Center.

Waynesville's old hospital is a mammoth brick building that occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of space. Haywood County's Department of Social Services moved out in January. A plan to convert the former hospital to low-income senior housing fell through last month, leaving the large, aging brick building in danger of standing permanently vacant unless another taker came along.

Stamey said he hopes that the building suits Smoky Mountain Center's needs.

Wooten said county officials are disappointed Smoky Mountain Center didn't contact it about the possible move sooner.

"We would have liked to know about this decision before the decision was made," Wooten said.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, said he felt Smoky Mountain Center had been less than honest and forthcoming in its dealings with the county.

"They didn't even give us a chance to talk about it," Debnam said. "They pretty much just told us it is a done deal."

While Jackson County officials believe the move is impending, Foreman said that is not the case.

"There is no decision until the board decides," said Foreman. The board includes local government officials and representatives from the 15-county area.

Foreman said several options are on the table as Smoky Mountain Center looks for new space to expand. The agency will add up to 100 jobs during the next couple of years as it begins to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

Smoky Mountain Center will likely be adding some jobs at all three offices in its 15-county service area, which reaches as far as Boone and Lenoir. But, it is looking for a central office building where the bulk of new jobs would be based.

Smoky Mountain Center leases its current office building in Sylva. Stamey said the county has not received a formal offer from Smoky Mountain Center.

"Smoky still has to decide exactly what they want to do," Stamey said.

One reason cited for the possible move is that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs. The agency believes it will be challenging to recruit the positions it needs from Jackson County's workforce alone.

Debnam said he found that suggestion ludicrous on the face of it: Jackson County is home to Western Carolina University, the Southwestern Development Commission and Southwestern Community College and MedWest-Harris Hospital and functions as one of the region's local government hubs.

Smoky Mountain Center acts as a local management entity that oversees state funded mental health, intellectual and developmental disability, and substance abuse services. Starting this year, in addition to managing state funds, Smoky will be responsible for managing Medicaid funds for all behavioral health services in its area.

"For our 15-county area, we will become like the public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid," Foreman said.

— Writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story 

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