A pair of local businessmen, hoping to turn a former public school into a mental health clinic, hit a wall of public resistance, putting the project in a tenuous position.
The project’s developers are seeking a rezoning, and during a public meeting convened Tuesday in the Northside neighborhood near the proposed site, attendees overwhelmingly spoke up against the project, which would offer both inpatient and outpatient mental health services.
“Our parents, elderly parents live right next to that place,” said Connie Garrett, one of the residents concerned about the proposed location in an otherwise residential neighborhood. “We want them to be safe.”
Safety was among the main concerns expressed by those who spoke up, along with the potential effect on property values and investment; others questioned why this particular neighborhood, which is primarily Black and low-income, was selected over wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.
“Why do the African American people always have to bear the burden?” local activist Marja Broussard asked.
Lee “Woody” Wood, one of the Lafayette-area business owners behind the project, said the site selection was based on the availability and suitability of the property, the former J. Wallace James Elementary School. “We’re looking at real estate — and the building is vacant and available,” he said.
Wood said he believes the facility would “be an asset to the community.”
Most of Lafayette’s existing mental health services, such as counseling centers, behavioral health hospitals and drug rehab facilities, are located south of Highway 90. According to census data, roughly a third of residents in the neighborhood around the proposed site do not have access to a vehicle that would allow them to travel to those facilities.
According to Wood, the facility would serve patients of all income levels, including those without insurance and Medicaid recipients. “It’s a significant amount,” Wood said of the portion of indigent patients investors in the facility are expecting to serve.
Still, Wood had no luck swaying his audience to support the facility. The feasibility of the project hinges on a zoning change that has to be approved by the City Council. City Councilman Pat Lewis said he called the public meeting to receive input from his constituents on whether he should vote to approve the change.
“If y’all want it, I’m with y’all,” Lewis told attendees at the start of the meeting. Lewis is currently running for state representative, leaving his council seat behind after two terms.
By the meeting’s end, it was clear that at least the constituents in attendance did not support the facility. Lewis said he would pass on their concerns to his colleagues on the City Council, but reminded the crowd that it wasn’t up to him alone, and that his fellow council members also had a vote on the matter. “I can’t do anything by myself,” Lewis said. Councilmember Glenn Lazard, who represents the neighboring district on the Northside and is not seeking re-election, was also present.
While several speakers acknowledged that mental health resources were needed in the community, many said they’d prefer to see the property, which was temporarily used by the sheriff’s office for parole check-ins, inmate video calls and as administrative offices, be used in a different way.
“A lot of the mental health issues that’s going on is connected to people not having resources,” said Annette Porter, who identified herself as a real estate developer with Sun Community Housing Development Organization, a local nonprofit housing developer.
What the neighborhood needs is more investment, especially in affordable housing, Porter said. A mental health facility would likely turn off potential investors, she worried. Instead, she suggested the facility could be turned into a different kind of healthcare resource.
“If we can rezone it for a mental health facility, we can rezone it for a hospital,” Porter said.
Despite the pushback, Wood said he isn’t ready to give up on the idea just yet. “People have concerns, and that’s understandable,” he acknowledged, saying the developers would take the opposition into consideration as they decide whether to move forward.
But, he noted, not everyone in the neighborhood was against the project, despite the forceful rebuttal at Tuesday’s meeting, pointing to news interviews with residents in support of the facility, which he said echoed conversations he’s had with neighborhood residents.
As for those who expressed concerns Tuesday, Wood said hopes he can make some headway one on one, offering tours of the property, including to Garrett, whose 83-year-old father lives next door.
How successful that effort has been will likely become evident at the Oct. 17 council meeting, when the zoning change is expected to be introduced. Wood’s opposition is organizing as well — several attendees who spoke up against the project called on others to join them for public comment at the meeting next week.