Large hospital sits vacant in Central Texas; could it be used?

The lawns of the former Marlin VA Hospital are knee-deep in weeds, vines are invading buildings and there are fallen trees and other issues that have not been repaired. (Photo by Paul J. Gately)
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MARLIN, Texas (KWTX) A group of local citizens and the owners of the old Marlin Veteran’s Administration Medical Center are discussing how they might reopen the facility in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients as confirmed cases of the virus continue to rise.

“We’re putting something together now,” said Tracy Settles, spokesman for the Sterling Real Estate Development Corporation, LLC, a Houston firm that includes Sterling VA Marlin, LLC, the group that owns the complex.

“I just can’t talk about it right now because we haven’t firmed anything up yet, but I’ll know by Friday,” Settles said Wednesday.

Former Marlin Mayor Elizabeth Nelson is involved, too, she said, working with Settles and others in an effort to make the shuttered hospital space available for quick use, perhaps along with several other unused beds in an old, closed down nursing home right across the street.

“There is space here we could be using for veterans or for anybody who needs it,” Nelson said.

“The old hospital part of the campus is still in pretty good shape,” Nelson said, “It wouldn’t take a lot to have it in order.”

“The problem is, it has no infrastructure left,” said Waco attorney Denny Lessman, who was involved in the transfer of the property to the Houston real estate group.

“It’s a huge, old building that has no beds, no equipment for health care and making it usable as a hospital would be extremely expensive,” Lessman said.

“I’d love to see it happen, to see that place become productive again, but I’m afraid it will just continue to fall into disrepair and just be a black hole in that community.”

Nelson doesn’t see it that way.

“I am determined that something good will happen there,” she said.

Marlin residents in 1943 began hearing talk of the U.S. Navy’s plan to build a hospital for sailors in Texas and a group of Marlin businessmen immediately began lobbying to have Marlin chosen as the site of the new facility.

President Harry Truman authorized the construction of Marlin VA Medical Center in 1948 on an eight-acre site on the north side of the town and the center was dedicated in September 1950.

The hospital had bed space for 222 patients, employed 14 physicians, two dentists, 42 nurses, and various aides, who provided both acute and intermediate medical care, rehabilitation services, and ambulatory care.

Patients who had surgical emergencies were transferred to the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center, in Temple, or to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Waco for psychiatric services.

Patient count had dropped to 202 by 1990, at which time focus shifted to providing for the rehabilitation and treatment of chronically or acutely ill or aging veterans, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

There was a serious effort in the 1990s to close the Marlin unit, along with the huge centers in both Waco and Temple, but an effort spearheaded by then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas and U.S. Rep Chet Edwards, D-Waco, was able to secure the futures of the Waco and Temple units.

But amid that effort, Edwards said, congressional redistricting removed Falls County from his district.

The hospital was closed as part of a consolidation of VA services in 2005.

Two years later the state purchased the building with plans to convert it into a 200-bed hospital for inmates of women's prison units in Gatesville, but the plans never materialized.

The facility was handed over to the Texas General Land Office in July 2016 to begin appraisals.

In June 2017, the land office approved the sale of the property to Sterling Real Estate Development Corporation and Sterling VA Marlin, LLC, for a price of $1.6 million.

The Houston group announced plans to revitalize the buildings into space for housing veterans who had lingering medical conditions, many of them homeless.

But almost three years later, nothing has happened either inside or outside the 175,000 square-foot buildings, Nelson said.

The lawns are knee-deep in weeds, vines are invading buildings and there are fallen trees and other issues that have not been repaired.

Settles said, while he could not reveal any details or timelines, “we are working on it,” but then he refused to reveal who the “we’re” really is.

“I just can’t talk about any of that right now,” he said.