By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West News
LACOMBE – The quiet hallways of the Louisiana Heart Hospital won’t be that way much longer after Stirling Medical Lacombe LLC of Covington purchased the property for $22 million.
Townsend Underhill, Stirling’s senior vice president of development, said he expects to see business activity at the Heart Hospital in the coming months, with the potential of various tenants likely.
Underhill said there has been “significant interest” from major hospitals in St. Tammany Parish to lease some of the space, while he also expects a number of other health care businesses to lease space there as well.
“I think you will see an announcement within 60 days about who is going to start leasing space there, and we certainly should see business return there by the fourth quarter of the year,” he said.
The Heart Hospital closed its doors in February and filed for bankruptcy, claiming debts of over $100 million and assets of no more than $50 million.
Stirling Medical is an entity in the Stirling Properties family which is best known in St. Tammany Parish for its retail developments. They are the company which built the new Fremaux Town Center in Slidell, River Chase in Covington and were involved in the major renovation and rebranding for Hammond Square.
But Underhill said that Stirling has been involved in the healthcare field for a long time even if it wasn’t so well known.
“We’ve been doing medical for years, but it doesn’t get the attention of a new shopping center,” he said. “We also have multi-family developments and other real estate investments.”
He said the purchase price of $22 million—seen by some experts as a windfall for Stirling—opens the doors for them to operate a very profitable health care facility that Underhill was very excited about.
“The facility has been kept in top condition and we are very confident there will be great demand to lease space there,” he said.
Underhill said his company was instantly interested in purchasing the Heart Hospital when the bankruptcy seemed imminent. For that matter, he said he was walking the halls of the hospital on Monday, Feb. 6, the day after the emergency room closed. The hospital didn’t completely cease operations until Friday of that week, Feb. 10 and Stirling was already making decisions that would lead to its purchase.
The transaction is a “win-win for St. Tammany Parish,” the Stirling executive said.
“We view this as a big win for the parish economically,” he noted. “This will bring jobs back here and now it will be operated by a local company. I believe a major hospital in this area may use some of the space, as well as other healthcare companies or providers leasing other space.”
The deal with Stirling also means that St. Tammany Parish is expected to be paid over $770,000 in back property taxes that the Heart Hospital ownership was late on.
The announcement to file bankruptcy for the Heart Hospital came in January when owners of the 134-bed facility, based in Tennessee, gave in to mounting financial pressures. Sources say the hospital got itself in deep water by making too many agreements with physicians who were expected to bring their business there. However, the partners were never able to generate the income needed to overcome the debt and current financial obligations.
The hospital opened in 2003 with a plan to become the leader in healthcare for St. Tammany Parish by situating itself directly in the center of the parish with the 210,000 square foot facility offering a beautiful new hospital to serve both ends of St. Tammany. The hospital went through several different ownership groups in the past 14 years, but none were ever able to turn the profit needed.
Now, under the experienced commercial development team at Stirling, the future for the hospital looks strong, Underhill believes.
“We see a broad array of services being offered here,” he said. “I don’t think it will become a full-service, acute care hospital, but there certainly is the possibility of a major hospital in the area leasing space for some services.
“We feel like we bought it right,” he said in reference to the price. “That puts us in a different situation than it had been before.”