EVANSTON — A demolition date of August 2024 for several buildings on the Wyoming State Hospital campus is looming like a dark storm on the horizon, but a group of Uinta County residents are digging in their heels to save the site.
They have started a public awareness campaign called “Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital.” They say two recent, lengthy professional studies prove the buildings are structurally sound, and the state has ignored several other solid reasons for saving the buildings.
Evanston City Council Member Jen Hegeman told Cowboy State Daily that valuable kitchen equipment, air conditioners and other equipment paid for with state tax money was removed from the old buildings.
She wants an audit detailing what’s been removed and claims the state's decision to take the buildings down is shortsighted, and underhanded backroom politics.
The 27 buildings on the campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are connected by a series of tunnels. Many of the buildings were in use as recently as two years ago.
Irrigation water and power were turned off two years ago, and since then some of the floors have buckled and trees have died.
Wyoming’s ‘Bastard Stepchild’
State Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, told Cowboy State Daily that while she applauds the intent of the public awareness campaign, it's likely the cows have left the barn and that her efforts to lobby to save the old hospital have fallen on deaf ears.
"If we take the buildings down it would turn into a state lands issue, and if an investor wants to come in and buy the property and develop it, I think that's the best scenario," Schuler said. "I'd like to see at least some of the buildings restored, but I've been trying to get that ball rolling for years and have been met with 'no' at every level."
Hegemen said a Portland, Oregon, developer, Joe Westerman, has evaluated the property and is interested in buying the buildings and converting them into affordable housing, which the community desperately needs. They also could become a culinary school, day care and many other uses beneficial to the community.
But, she said state officials won't entertain an offer, which has been a gut-punch to Evanston and Uinta County.
"Evanston has been the bastard stepchild of Wyoming for a long time," Hegemen said. "It has not had strong representation in the state or the city for a very long time. I will not sit idly by while people suffer."
She said state lawmakers who voted to approve funds to raze the buildings made a fiscally irresponsible decision. And she added that Westerman, who she refers to as her "best friend," even offered to pay for irrigation and power to be restored to buy time for negotiations.
A $50 Million Battle
Schuler said it will take an investment in the neighborhood of $50 million to save the buildings. Asbestos, mold and that the buildings are not earthquake proof are among the reasons state officials have cited for tearing the campus down.
"I think we have realized that we have neither the money or the political will to save these buildlings," Schuler said. "But there are at least a dozen of them that have potential. I'm not OK with it and the people of Evanston aren't either."
Jim Davis, chairman of the Evanston Historic Preservation Commission, said the last card the community has to play is raising public awareness.
"The state has appropriated $53.3 million for demolition and we think that's a waste of money," he said. "Those buildings have gone through two winters vacant, which is not helping. It's an enormous project, but there's a great opportunity up there to provide diversification for our economy and people."
WDH ‘Strongly’ Disagrees
Kim Deti, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Health, wrote in an email to Cowboy State Daily that $15 million was authorized by the Wyoming Legislature for demolition. That money comes from unused department funds and is not a direct appropriation. In a second budget footnote, $39 million could potentially be authorized if available.
"First, we want to make clear these are not just Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) decisions," Deti wrote. "This is a broader state issue that involves elected officials and policymakers and other state agencies."
Deti wrote that the department appreciates the role the Wyoming State Hospital has played in the community over the years, but at the same time it’s "very proud" of the accomplishments, reconstruction and modernization of the new hospital, located on the same site.
"From the WDH perspective, we would strongly disagree with the assertion that the decision on what to do with the buildings on the campus that are no longer being used has been made by insiders unfairly," Deti said. "Going to back to at least 2017, there have been numerous meetings with local stakeholders and community members about future plans for the campus once our major reconstruction project was completed.
“Discussions with the Healthcare Facilities Task Force have always included intent to address campus abatement and demolition."
Deti added that the abatement and demolition project would be designed in phases and not happen all at one time.
John Thompson can be reached at: John@CowboyStateDaily.com