MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - With a price tag of $51.3 million, the COVID-19 overflow hospital at the former Commercial Appeal building is one of the most expensive projects of its kind in the country.
There was a much cheaper alternative available at the Gateway Shopping Center about six miles away, but officials say it wasn't the better option.
On Monday, leaders gathered in front of the new 400-bed overflow hospital on Union Avenue for the official handoff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the State of Tennessee.
"What this is, is a representation of how a community can come together in the midst of a crisis," said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. "The work that's been done here in the last 30 days is incredible."
Federal government contract data WMC Action News 5 analyzed shows temporary hospitals in other cities with a similar number of beds didn't cost as much.
For instance, $25.9 million was spent turning the Miami Beach Convention Center into a 450-bed hospital, while $31.7 million was spent converting the Washington D.C. convention center into a 443-bed hospital.
Records also show converting an expo center in Wisconsin into a 530-bed hospital cost between $6 million to $14 million.
The Memphis convention center wasn't an option because it's being renovated.
But there was an alternative.
In early April, the governor announced the Gateway Shopping Center had been selected as the site for the overflow hospital.
Contract data shows it would have cost $12.6 million to convert the shopping center into an overflow hospital.
But two days after the contract was awarded, officials decided to move the hospital to the Commercial Appeal building for the more expensive $51 million price tag, according to a review report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In an email on Wednesday, Gillum Ferguson, the interim spokesman for the governor's office said the Commercial Appeal building has the potential to be a long-term site.
“One of the reasons is that unlike most alternative care sites (ACS) looked at by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Commercial Appeal building has the potential to be a long-term site since it had no tenant at the time of construction. Other sites, like Gateway Shopping Center in Memphis, or say the Music City Center in Nashville, could only be on a shorter-term lease given the existence of previous tenant,” said Ferguson. “The Commercial Appeal building also has the advantage of being located in close proximity to numerous hospitals in Memphis (since the facility is for overflow patients from these hospitals), and had infrastructure in place that facilitated its rapid and safe conversion from a commercial building to a health care facility.”
The building was finished last week.
"We hope that we never have to use this building for COVID-19 overflow. But we also know this building could be used for other things in the future," Lee said on Monday.
City of Memphis communications director Ursula Madden confirmed that the City suggested the Commercial Appeal building as a potential location because of its proximity to the medical district.
However, the final decision was made by the governor's Unified Command Group, which is coordinating the state's response to COVID-19.
Officials say overflow hospitals were needed in case regular hospitals became overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
The most expensive overflow hospital is SUNY Stony Brook in New York. It cost $155.5 million to build with 1038 beds. The second-most expensive hospital was SUNY Old Westbury, which is also in New York. Government records show it cost $118.5 million.
Neither overflow hospital has received any patients.
In fact, across the country many other overflow hospitals sit empty, including in Memphis.
COST TO BUILD ALTERNATE CARE FACILITIES:
- SUNY Stony Brook (Stony Brook, NY) $155.5 million
- SUNY Old Westbury (Old Westbury, NY) $118.5 million
- McCormick Place (Chicago, IL) $65.5 million
- Commercial Appeal building (Memphis, TN) $51.3 million
- Westchester County Center (White Plains, NY) $46.9 million
- Colorado Convention Center (Denver, CO) $34.6 million
- Walter Washington Convention Center (Washington, D.C.) $31.7 million
- Miami Beach Convention Center (Miami, FL) $25.9 million
- Sherman Hospital (Elgin, IL) $18.2 million
- Westlake Hospital (Melrose Park, IL) $16.3 million
(Sources: USASpending.gov; Federal Procurement Data System; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)