Reading County Commissioner Joe Mullins’s Facebook page and speaking with him, you’d think Flagler is about to get a new hospital focused on mental health and, not long after that, adding a maternity ward.
“We’re having some very successful negotiations and we’re real close. That’s as much as I can say without messing up the NDA,” Mullins said, referring to a non-disclosure agreement. “It’s going to be on U.S. 1, and it is a for-profit hospital.” It would start out small, as an urgent-care type facility, “then it will be a larger hospital, a full blown hospital with quite a few jobs, several hundreds, and focus on those services that we’re missing, mental health and labor and delivery and urgent care.”
He was adamant: “This is a project that’s going to happen.”
Not so fast, says Cameron. “The medical thing is pre-embryonic. We’re on a first date. There’s no embryo.”
Economic Development Director Helga van Eckert echoed his caution. She’d spoken to the economic development board, describing it as “Project Alice,” in the usual way of veiling possibilities in hokey names. “This is again a multi-million dollar project that could be a game-changer for us, so we’ll see where that one goes,” she said. But nothing beyond conversations.
And weeks before, in May, “a multi-million dollar health and wellness project that we’ve been working on for about nine months now” went south: that company had been looking at 80 locations, Flagler had made the shortlist of the last three, then was cut out. Not enough people locally to justify it, van Eckert said. And that, after almost a year’s work.
Mullins’s at times manic energy and clearly Trump-inspired flair for hyperbole is unnerving some of his colleagues even as he seems to thrive on the exposure–and on keeping his critics off stride with an in-your-face, new-sheriff-in-town brashness. He describes himself as a work in progress and acknowledges getting ahead of himself. But he’s not paying the price. The county is. The stories told by Mullins’s hyper-optimism and the county administration’s more cautious and deliberate approach illustrate a recurring gulf between the politician’s wishes and promises and what the government administration is in fact delivering (or not). And it places the administration in the position of having to qualify if not walk back much of what Mullins projects on his social media page while doing damage control, as with contentions that another hospital could be competing with AdventHealth in the county.
“That’s strictly Joe, that’s not us,” Cameron said. “The only discussions I’ve had with AdventHealth is what services they had and what they didn’t have.” But there’s not been much regarding a different health care facility, let alone a new hospital. “This discussion is just way premature. It really is,” Cameron said. “This is effectively the result of discussions on some phone calls. We have had Helga look into the possibilities of what incentives would be available, you don’t even know if it’s a private or a non-profit you’d be dealing with, so the incentive packages vary. These are things we do all the time, we reach out to all kinds of industries to see if they’d be interested in future discussions. We automatically go into an NDA. The vast majority of those discussions never pan out.”
Cameron continued: “We are working toward the industrial side of it, and hopefully we do have some announcements on that in the near future. The medical side would be further off.” The “industrial side of it” consist of a planned 250,000 square foot light manufacturing building that would assemble and distribute furniture on U.S. 1. Van Eckert put a package worth some $680,000 in county subsidies for the company (reimbursing all or part of the company’s county taxes over 10 years). That project was first reported here last week, revealing the size of the subsidy.
Van Eckert defended the subsidy, saying the land the company is looking to buy is currently generating only $45 in county taxes and $25 in school taxes. Van Eckert would not disclose where the parcel is located. The only parcel currently for sale along U.S. 1, that was billed those amounts in taxes last year, is a 19-acre tract at the south end of the county owned by a group called “Ajb of Flagler County LLC,” one of whose principals is Bruce Page, president of Intracoastal Bank. The property is brokered by Margaret Sheehan-Jones of Parkside Realty, a regular at Van Eckert’s economic development board meetings and the broker associated with several land deals with the county, some of them controversial, one of them–the catastrophic Sears building sale earlier this year–resulting in the county’s intent to sue Sheehan-Jones, among others.
That project was among those touted by Mullins on social media and in interviews, though his focus remained on a health care facility, as his spate of posts and even more comments under his own posts indicated: “High paying jobs and combat opioid epidemic!” “lots of big things about to occur.” “We will see a very much needed medical industry in district 4 on Us-1.” “I promised to bring jobs! And that’s now happening.”
From Tallahassee he recorded a video promising “we’re about to see some major, major industry come to Flagler County.” He then repeated in a subsequent post: “HIGH paying medical jobs and work force housing. Flagler County! Mental health and labor and delivery.” And again mere hours later: “ High Paying medical and industrial jobs on the west side.” “Not currently in county, Coming to US-1 (my district 4) and much needed services for mental health and more. With lots of jobs! May even celebrate our first Flagler county hospital birth!”
Mullins had called Cameron before putting up anything on Facebook relating to the health care facility. Cameron cautioned him. “The most you can say, Joe, is we are looking for a way to fill these service gaps, we’re talking to various people, you can’t say anything beyond that,” the administrator said he told him. “But it sounds like he did.”
In a pair of interviews just before and after the posts went up, Mullins went into more details. “Focus on labor and delivery, mental health and other general services, and it’ll be on US 1, and it’ll bring in several hundred jobs,” Mullins said, echoing his Facebook posts. “I’ve been working on it for a couple of months but we confirmed it last night, me and Jerry did,” he said, referring to Jerry Cameron. “It’s coming, it’s official, more news to come.”
This would be an actual hospital, though Mullins wasn’t sure how many beds it would have, nor the time-frame, acknowledging that it’s early in the process. “I haven’t got anything on paper yet,” he said. “It’s strong enough for me to start being able putting it out there.” Still, he said, he wanted to be “careful with Advent,” meaning AdventHealth, the actual hospital in Palm Coast: he didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers, but at the same time he said it was time to move in broader directions, especially with mental health and maternity. “I think competition brings out the best in everybody, and I think Flagler County has got to have a balance, we’ve gone way too long without mental health and labor and delivery,” Mullins said.
In late 2017 Rom Jimenez, AdventHealth’s CEO (and a member of the county’s economic development board) directly addressed the recurring question about a maternity ward at the hospital: while that was projected for the future, present demographics driven by an older population meant that a maternity ward was “not really on our radar any time soon.”
Pressed on the sort of health care company Mullins was referring to, he said he was under a gag order, but said the company already operates in Florida, and made a connection with his brother, who’s in health care, and HCA, the company formerly headed by Rick Scott before he became governor. “We’re going to shoot for a full-blown facility,” Mullins said.
“Joe’s perennial optimism may have gotten in front of him,” Cameron said. “I know this is a big goal of his, and I just can’t give the impression from the administration side that any of this stuff is inevitable.”