Oklahoma County is considering whether to purchase the old St. Anthony South building at 2129 S.W. 59th St. for use as a mental health facility for detainees who would otherwise be housed inside the county jail.
The building had been in use as a mental health facility by St. Anthony for several years, but it has been vacant since January the hospital system put it up for sale. Partially renovated in 2020, the building is listed at $19 million and would include space for 140 to 170 beds.
Oklahoma County has received about $154 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. That legislation was enacted by Congress in 2020 to assist communities grappling with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In January, Oklahoma County commissioners approved using $40 million of those funds to build a new mental health facility.
Davidson: ‘Do something now versus five years from now’
While commissioners’ initial plans leaned toward constructing a totally new facility, the expediency with which the county could make use of the old St. Anthony building has made the idea attractive to new District 3 Commissioner Myles Davidson.
“With the St. Anthony building, I view that as a chance to do something now versus five years from now,” Davidson said. “It allows us to do something now that we were going to do later and at a higher dollar figure than what this building would cost. With the extra ARPA money, we could put that back into the jail.”
While it was renovated in 2020, the building does have some maintenance issues. It needs about $2 million in electrical, plumbing, and HVAC improvements. An additional $1 million would be needed to install a new security system and another $1.2 million for a perimeter fence. A roof replacement would cost an additional $1.5 million. All told, the final price, including updated maintenance, would be about $25.3 million, according to an estimate obtained by NonDoc.
“Roofs are always a big issue, especially with the hail we get here. But the roof needs some work in places,” Davidson said. “I think it’s OK for now, but certainly as we get deeper into this — and if we got to the point where we were actually ready to sit down and purchase the building — we would do a much deeper dive into that. I do know that the elevators are in pretty good shape. They’re hydraulic, which is more reliable. Elevators are always one of the biggest expenses when you look at buildings, whether they are new or not.”
Davidson said the building’s former use as a mental health facility makes it ideal.
“This isn’t something we’re having to break out of mothballs,” Davidson said. “They moved out in January. I have toured it, and it’s clear it has been recently renovated. Some things would need to be changed. The rooms on the second floor have to be certified up to a standard, making sure there aren’t any hard corners or breakable windows. But for the most part, the facility I think would work well for what we would want to use it for. At a total cost of $25 million, I think that’s better than spending $40 million and having to wait for several years for it to open. The need is there now.”
The location of the St. Anthony building could be a positive or a negative depending what site is ultimately selected for the new Oklahoma County Detention Center. The new jail is expected to open in 2026 or 2027.
A property near Will Rogers World Airport has been discussed and is on a list of about 10 sites being considered. Located just west of the intersection of South Pennsylvania Avenue and Southwest 59th Street, the St. Anthony building would be ideal if the jail is ultimately built near the airport, Davidson said.
“I think that would help keep transportation costs down,” he said. “You’d just be about four miles away from the jail if it were built there.”
Davidson’s wife, Marilyn Davidson, is registered to lobby at the Oklahoma State Capitol on behalf of two clients: the Texas Public Policy Foundation and SSM Health Care of Oklahoma, which operates the St. Anthony hospital system. Some of her work has involved advocating for criminal justice reform, and she has also lobbied for the American Heart Association, according to Oklahoma Ethics Commission records.
“In the interest of 100 percent transparency, she does have a contract with St. Anthony’s. But to be clear, if we were to purchase this building (as a county), she would not benefit in any way,” Myles Davidson said. “I’m not one to play politics. In my view, this is a great way to save as many tax dollars as possible while also getting a facility up and running much quicker than it would be if we built it from scratch.”
Other commissioners undecided on St. Anthony building
District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert has toured the St. Anthony building and sees some of its advantages.
“If the county were to purchase it, we would definitely need to invest in some upgrades,” Blumert said. “We would need to make the building how we need it. But even with that process, it would be open much quicker than one we would build from the ground up. It’s also been used as a psychiatric hospital, so more or less it has most things that we would need.”
But Blumert said the building also comes with some problems, most notably, its location relative to a new jail.
“One of the biggest concerns is that it might end up being too far from wherever the jail is built,” Blumert said. “I think there’s always been a desire to have the new jail, and a new mental health facility, close to each other. There are some questions that would need to be answered. For one, how will we transport detainees who are experiencing severe mental illness to a facility from the jail if it’s far away from the jail? There are some safety concerns with that.”
County commissioners will have the final say on building a new facility or purchasing the St. Anthony building. Blumert said she remains undecided, pending more information.
“I haven’t officially decided, but I’m as of now leaning toward ‘No,'” she said. “I think, as I mentioned, the issue with it being off-site away from the jail is probably my biggest worry about it.”
District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said he also remains undecided about the St. Anthony building.
“It would allow us to have a facility much more quickly than if we built one, but my concerns are that it is an older building, and while it has enough beds for now, it’s just enough for now, and I’m not sure there would be room to grow and provide the mental health service that we’re otherwise planning on doing,” Maughan said. “My other fear is that we are taking on another facility and the expense of the overhead that comes with it. I’ve been wondering how much it costs to operate and what the staffing levels required to operate it would be. Those are the primary reasons I’m cautious about taking that on.”
Maughan said he has toured the building in the past, but not since the county began exploring its purchase. He said the building’s physical condition is not the only consideration.
“I think there are some concerns about proper zoning and how close it can be to a school,” Maughan said. “I think these are all things that we will need to get answers to before we know that it works to house incarcerated people there.”