North Knoxville fears uncertain hospital future

8:14 PM, Jan 11, 2013   |    comments
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Tennova's "Physicians Regional Medical Center" is the newest name for the old hospital in North Knoxville.  The building spent a few years under the Mercy healthcare name.  But for most of its more than 80-year existence, the hospital stood as a fixture along Knoxville's skyline under the name St. Mary's Hospital.

The St. Mary's name featured advertisements with quarterback Peyton Manning playing a game of catch with a rocket-armed nun.  Manning would say "go long one time, Sister" before throwing the ball over the hospital.  Manning has maintained his endorsement relationship throughout the various ownership changes and is prominently featured on Tennova billboards along Interstate 40.

Now people who live and work near the former St. Mary's fear the hospital will "go long" by running a Tennova route that ends in West Knoxville.  Tennova purchased 110 acres along Middlebrook Pike that will enable the construction of a brand new hospital to replace the aging North Knoxville facility.

Just across the street from the current hospital sits the hub for Creative Catering of Knoxville.  Around six months ago, owner Nancy Kendrick opened a new lunchtime restaurant called the Coop Cafe.

"There are times when we'll have 15, 20, 30 people from the hospital come in. They do have short lunch hours so a lot of the hospital business is when they'll call ahead and pick up a big box of lunches at the same time.  We also deliver lunches to the hospital, so it definitely is a big thing for the cafe," said Kendrick.

Kendrick said the news of a possible relocation for the current hospital is disconcerting.

"I hate it. Obviously, there will be a lot of jobs lost if the building is empty," said Kendrick.  "We are fortunate because our main business is catering and not just the cafe.  But there are a lot of businesses around here that depend heavily on traffic from the hospital."

Mark Campen represents North Knoxville on the city council and said right now people are just trying to gather information about the hospital's uncertain future.

"I think the unknown is what's scaring people the most right now. What is it going to do to the community and that part of Knoxville? Obviously North Knoxville needs a hospital.  That hospital has also been a big part of the community for so long.  Our four-year-old son was born there, so it is definitely something a lot of people have depended on for medical care," said Campen.

Tennova has indicated it will maintain some medical services in the former St. Mary's facility and any completion of a new hospital is years away.

Campen said some local neighborhood associations began making preparations in 2008 when there were similar hospital relocation discussions.

"I think we'll probably revisit some of the lists that were made back then.  Again, I think we need to be cautious before we think it's going to be the end of the world for North Knoxville," said Campen.

Kendrick said the main long-term concern is the possibility of having a large vacant building in the neighborhood.

"There is nothing that's ever really positive coming from an empty building of this size. It would not be a real positive impact, I'm confident," said Kendrick.

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