The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Sitting in the resource center at Longfellow Middle School Monday evening, my mind could hardly focus on the subject at hand: Finding a win-win for the state, city and private interests to develop underused land near Griffin Hospital on Norman’s near east side.
It was mid-December and this time of year usually meant my siblings and I needed to find that perfect Christmas cedar tree to remove from the hospital grounds. Those big red cedars, when shaped properly, made for excellent trees.
Only two mishaps in more than a decade of tree thievery. One cedar was about twice as large as the space our parents set aside in our rural Norman home. (No problem, we just cut it in half). The second involved small mammals that nested in the particular tree that nationalized and did not leave until the tree was taken indoors.
Those are minor issues compared to the scope of what the city’s Griffin Hospital steering committee is charged with exploring. The possibilities outlined to the large committee this past week are numerous. Walking trails, greenbelts, more sports practice fields, a community garden, new housing, a new recreation and aquatics center, expanded social services for the homeless and hungry and commercial sites.
The state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services doesn’t expect to see a big enough budget to repair or replace buildings on the Griffin campus. But if they could sell or long-term lease some unneeded land to the city or developers, it could be a revenue stream for them to utilize in delivering better services for mental health consumers, according to director Terri White.
Those aging buildings on the Griffin grounds were once home to more than 3,000 patients when the hospital was named Central State. My grandfather was a psychiatrist there and his family lived on the grounds along with other doctors and administrators. In Norman, the patients were easily recognizable by their khakis. Patients were a big part of the hospital’s workforce, tending the livestock, raising crops, doing the laundry or delivering the newspapers.
The hospital leased its former dairy and patient recreation area to the city years ago. Griffin Park is home field to thousands of Norman athletes. The second generation is playing soccer, football, baseball and softball there now. To the north, Sutton Wilderness is an underused oasis in the middle of suburbia.
Nowadays, the hospital is a shadow of its former self. It has fewer than 200 in-patients. Mental health service delivery is now more community based. Medications have improved to the point that fewer individuals need to be hospitalized.
Central State and later Griffin doctors and nurses were pioneers in the treatment of the mentally ill. The hospital, which was once home to the small Methodist Highgate College, was nationally known. The state has used land in recent years for relocation of the J.D. McCarty Center and the Norman Veterans Center but much acreage remains.
The abundance of land and building inventory could be a win-win. One map handed out to committee members shows commercial development about the size of an eastside Brookhaven Square on the southwest corner of 12th Avenue Northeast and Robinson.
Additional commercial development on Norman’s east side would contribute to the city’s ad valorem tax base. Additional housing, trails and recreational sites could be shared by residents, hospital staff and mental health consumers.
It also could help erode the stigma of mental illness and the hospital’s own mission. The steering committee has a mammoth task ahead. Lots of hoops to jump through before anything can happen. Deed restrictions. Financing hurdles. Infrastructure. Varied constituencies. Eating an elephant can only happen one bite at a time.
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