Flagler County has a pronounced need for treatment facilities for drug addicts, especially residential treatment. This morning, Dr. Duke Vinson, previously associated with a drug-rehab facility in St. Augustine that closed, said he was preparing to open an in-patient facility in place of what used to be the Flagler County Sheriff’s Operations Center off State Road 100 in Bunnell. The facility would actually be little more than a move–from St. Augustine to Bunnell.
The operations center came to be known as “Mold-Ops” as mold issues developed there, causing many employees to blame the mold for numerous sicknesses and forcing the sheriff to abandon the building in 2018 and occupy temporary facilities to this day. The county never certified the safety of the building after that, and sold it at a significant loss in 2020.
“That was a building that was presented to us out of many that was available,” Vinson told WNZF’s David Ayres on this morning’s Free For All Fridays show, “and we bought it from–which we already bought it, or in contract with, it was from a private seller. I’m not sure–well, I know it’s not a police station anymore.”
Vinson had first looked at buying the former Bunnell City Hall complex, another facility that became plagued with water intrusion and mold, and that city government had to quickly evacuate for the safety of its employees. Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson said Vinson had contacted the city around January with interest in buying the property. But by then it had already been in the process of selling to another bidder. So Vinson was redirected to the old operations center building, which Gary Roberts had bought, cleaned up and listed at one point for over $3.95 million. It is no longer listed. But the sale has not yet been recorded.
Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins introduced Vinson on the radio show this morning as being part of a treatment facility out of “Atlanta and North Carolina, they got facilities all over the southeast,” and that it “picked Flagler County over all of the counties in Florida, the Northeast Florida region and the northwest.” Neither claims are correct, as Vinson himself would say moments later.
Mullins’s claim that the county was somehow chiefly instrumental in bringing the facility to Bunnell also appears to be another one of Mullins’s frequent exaggerations or fabrications. (The timing of his announcement, before the sale of the building is final, is also suspect: Mullins is in a difficult re-election fight because of revelations of his abuses of his authority and insults toward law enforcement in June, and because of his abrasive record before that. He has been seeking to change the subject with cheerier headlines, most of them his own.)
“He misspoke a little bit,” Vinson said of Mullins. “It wasn’t just any all over Florida. We were very selective on where we open up because we want to have commitment from the community and a need to open up, and Flagler County went straight to the front row when it came to the need and commitment by everyone.”
He did not refer to any facilities in Atlanta or North Carolina, though he is a native of Columbus, Ga. (he referred to a facility he was involved in in Augusta, where Mullins is from. It’s called Bluff Plantation). Vinson said he had support from the county, from Bunnell and from the sheriff.
Vinson had been working with Bunnell city government county government staff “for about the last year trying to find a location different from theirs in St. Johns County, where they were having to move from,” Adam Mengel, the county’s planning director, said. Vinson and his representatives would have discussions with Jorge Salinas, the deputy county administrator about suitable locations, but eventually attention turned to Bunnell and the former operations center building. At that point, the county no longer had jurisdiction. “Dr. Jackson may have been involved more so is what I also understand,” Mengel said, “particularly with the old sheriff’s operations center, with that being in Bunnell. That would really end up not concerning the county since we don’t have jurisdiction there.”
That may also explain why even other county commissioners were neither aware nor involved in the initiative. “They had not talked to me,” Commissioner Andy Dance said this afternoon, though County Administrator Heidi Petito, he said, had been in communications with Vinson. But, Dance said, since Vinson’s operation will be a for-profit company that will not be seeking or getting county government incentives, there was no county commission involvement. “It’s a for-profit entity, as I understand, that’s moving location,” he said.
Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said he may have had a conversation with Vinson, but couldn’t be sure, since he talks to innumerable people, and wouldn’t necessarily recognize him if he saw him.
“Yesterday Commissioner Mullins calls me to tell me that he was going to announce on WNZF an addiction treatment facility that’s going to go into the old operations center, as we know as Mold Ops, and I said, really?” Staly said this morning, underscoring his incredulous reaction. “I said, ‘You’re going to have patients in there, around the clock, you’re going to certify that the building is safe? Because the county couldn’t do that for my employees, when I asked them to put it in writing to me for my employees. Since that request by the county, they’ve sold the building. Now I guess it’s a private sale. But I don’t know what a private individual has done to that building. I haven’t been in it since we vacated. Personally I’d question the viability of that building, but if private business wants to go in there and has done their due diligence and they believe their employees and patients would be fine, then that’s great, it brings a business back to Flagler County with jobs and needed treatment beds. I can tell you I would not put my employees back in there, but the conditions could be different.”
Staly stressed that his opinion of the building has nothing to do with his support for more treatment options, which he has championed all his years as sheriff. (The sheriff’s jail happens to be the only de-facto in-patient treatment center for medically assisted addiction recovery in the county.) Of Vinson, he said, “I can’t tell you if I spoke to him or not, but I have been an advocate for more treatment beds in Flagler County. Whether or not I personally told him that, I couldn’t tell you.”
Vinson kept referring to his company in the plural, prompting Ayres to ask: “Who is ‘we’?”
“We is Healthcare Alliance of North American and this company has other facilities with different names,” Vinson said. “It’s always the name of the community because when we go into a community we embed ourselves, and I’ve worked in and out of the Daytona, St. Augustine, Panama City area, so I am part of Florida for the most part.” He said he would bring 50 to 100 jobs.
It’s not yet clear whether the projected facility would draw on insured and private-pay patients, or whether it will also accept poorer patients and those on Medicare, which is the predominant need in Flagler. The former Vince Carter Sanctuary in Bunnell was run as an exclusively private-pay facility several years ago, but couldn’t make a go of it as such. Vinson suggested that with certain grants, which could underwrite the cost of those who can’t pay, “we’re there to help the community.”
Vinson was associated with the St. Augustine Rehab Center, also known as Pearl of the Sea Retreat, at 7601 South A1A. The facility was a high-end, private-pay rehab center. The St. Augustine facility was licensed by the Department of Children and Families to provide detox care and in-patient addiction treatment. The license is still active, but the facility closed over six months ago (several of its employees are now working in Flagler) and the property owners, Anita and James Henslin, operating under the name Ocean Romance LLC, sold te property in June for $6.3 million, according to St. Johns County Property Appraiser’s records.
Vinson 15 months ago was announced as group CEO for The Ranch Pennsylvania in Wrightsville, Pa., a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility there. “Dr. Vinson will oversee full P&L responsibility for The Ranch Pennsylvania and satellite services, strategic planning and overall revenue growth and program development,” a public relations release stated in April 2021. But “he is no longer CEO here,” an administrative staffer at The Ranch said today.
A somewhat skeptical Ayres asked Vinson about the uses of the 36,000 square foot building. “It’s a big building, gosh, I mean, it’s a lot,” Ayres said. “So what are you going to remodel it remodel it and repurpose it to be–what’s your vision? What’s it going to be? Will people stay there? It’s going to be like a hospital?” (Until the early 2000s, it had been Florida Memorial Hospital, which then became Florida Hospital Flagler at the more eastern end of SR100.)
“Exactly,” Vinson said. “From what I understand it was a hospital, then a sheriff’s office. And now it’s going to be back to a healthcare facility. Yes. And it’s going to be refitted to fit our needs for a medical detox residential program that is going to be cutting edge, and I can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be the best destination for addiction treatment in Florida.” He said “it’s going to be up to 60” people that could receive treatment at one time. He did not disclose the buying price other than that “it’s in the millions.”
Jackson, the Bunnell city manager, doesn’t foresee regulatory hurdles ahead and welcomed the prospect of an addiction-recovery facility. “I knew they were looking but I didn’t know they had closed,” Jackson said this morning. “I don’t know much about the details but it will create jobs, and medically created jobs, which is right in line with the MedNex.” MedNexus is the University of North Florida’s new medical-education expansion in Palm Coast, alongside that of Jacksonville University.
“The building is pretty much ready to go, they would have just touched base with staff to make sure the zoning was appropriate, or if they had to get a variance they’d probably have to find out about that,” Jackson said.