The former New Mexico Rehabilitation Center, 31 Gail Harris Road, now faces potential demolition.
According to Timothy Korte, public information officer for the General Services Property Control Division, “The Roswell site is among a handful of state buildings around New Mexico that are falling into disrepair. … During the 2011 Legislative Session and the Special Session in September, we requested $2 million in capital outlay funds for demolitions statewide, but nothing was appropriated.”
The disrepair of which he spoke refers to the vandalism that has occurred since May, when the building was vacated. The structure has been vandalized eight times. According to Roswell Police Department estimates, vandals have caused $7,000 worth of damage.
In the last incident, the Roswell Fire Department was called after vandals set off fire extinguishers, which the neighbors mistook for smoke. Fire Marshal Bill Wells then contacted the state and asked that the first floor windows be boarded up.
He admitted it was not the best solution, since once the boards were in place the building presented a particular hazard to Fire Department personnel and the public.
“If someone breaks in now and starts a fire, they could get killed because they could not find a way out,” said Wells. “With a building of that size (19,000 square feet) it would be almost impossible to find them, and I’m afraid that firefighters would be killed trying to rescue them, but that’s our job; that’s what we to do, and we’ll do it.”
The cost of materials for boarding up the 88 windows on the first floor is estimated at $3,000. This figure does not include the cost of labor.
When asked about the now-derelict building, Robert J. Donnell, Chaves County Economic Development Corporation executive director, said, “If you are asking if having the building boarded up is the best presentation of the community, definitely not. But I am an optimist. I believe this represents an opportunity.”
Since the building was boarded up, criminal activity has increased. On Oct. 30, the police were called to the old rehabilitation center after someone broke out a second-story window. It was the second incident in less than a week. On Nov.
4, the facility was entered twice in a 24-hour period. In one incident, subjects gained access to the building through a third-story window. Thieves removed $400 worth of copper from the roof. Later that same day, the police were called out for a burglary in progress, when it was discovered an additional window had been broken. Estimates for each window range from $50 to $100. These four incidents cost the state between $200 and $400. With the copper theft, the losses in a single week range from $600 to $800.
On Tuesday, criminals struck again, gaining entry through a second-story window where they tore $2,500 worth of copper from the walls. The costs of these incidents added to the previous estimate of $10,800 for vandalism and materials, the total cost to the state is nearly $14,000.
Meanwhile, the latest incident creates a whole new hazard for local residents. Previous surveys of the building revealed the walls contain asbestos. According to New Mexico’s Air Quality Bureau, if the walls had remained intact, then the asbestos would not have presented a health risk.
“If the unauthorized entry results in destruction of surfaces containing asbestos, the dust particles raised can cause a significant hazard to the public, especially the neighboring buildings,” said Allan Morris of the Air Quality Bureau. He further noted that the General Services Division could be held legally liable by their negligence for their failure to protect the public.
These damages and the potential risk to the public could have been prevented. In December, an agreement was reached between the Regional Housing Authority and then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration to turn the rehabilitation center into a community center. When Chuck Gara became division director, the project was derailed.
When questioned why the GSD reversed its decision, Korte said that the agreement had been rescinded because the GSD wanted a paying tenant. Last week, Korte reported, “Unfortunately, nothing has changed regarding the old rehabilitation hospital in Roswell. The Property Control Division remains open to an outcome that would place a tenant in the building. … The most recent talks have been with the Veterans Affairs Department and CYFD, but there is no agreement to report.”
Now that the walls have been breached and asbestos has been released, few tenants would accept the building. Chris Herbert, executive director of the Regional Housing Authority who was part of the South Roswell Community Center project, said he was still interested in the building for housing for the disabled and for veterans. However, he said he would probably request an asbestos survey to assess the damages.
Any proposed demolition further complicates things. Unless the building is cleared of asbestos, demolition represents a danger to everyone living in the area, not just those who enter the building illegally. Federal law requires abatement before demolition of a building containing asbestos can take place.
However, the capital outlay of $2 million requested by GSD would barely cover abatement and not the cost of demolition.
Rocky Mountain Abatement Inc., estimated costs on abatement of a building the size of the old rehabilitation center between $1.2 million and $1.8 million. Demolition without abatement would contaminate the soil, making any future use of, or construction on, the property impossible.
Any person who walked across the property, any child who played on the property, kicking up dust, would be at risk. Wind would propel contaminants into nearby residences. Morris explained the process. Asbestos particles combine with dust particles and once the dust becomes airborne, it can be inhaled.
“In quantities large enough, it can cause immediate respiratory distress. … The actual health effects aren’t known for years,” said Morris.
John Taylor, who was a part of the committee in charge of the demolition of the former St. Mary’s Hospital, confirmed the figures for abatement. “I can tell you from experience. The cost for asbestos abatement at St. Mary’s ran into seven figures.
This didn’t include the cost for demolition. … It’s going to take a lot of money to tear the thing down.” He also agreed that soil contamination would be a problem without the proper abatement.
As a veterans’ advocate, Taylor was also involved in the project to convert the Rehabilitation Center to a community center.
During that time, he contacted state officials to see if he could facilitate that transfer of the building. “We got totally stonewalled.”
Southeast New Mexico Vietnam Veterans representative Greg Neal discussed his attempts to get the building for use as a veterans center.
“I just went to a veterans meeting in Santa Fe, and I can tell you the veterans would just love it. We have nothing here for vets here in Southeastern New Mexico. You have to go to El Paso if you need help.”
Neal expressed his dismay at the situation. He said he did not understand why the GSD did not take advantage of the opportunity to turn the building over to another government entity. “They’re not making any money on it. It’s costing them money. So why don’t they sign it over? They could have signed it over to us and let us deal with it. It’s a good example of not seeing the unintended consequence of a decision.”
Korte acknowledged that renovation or even demolition of the building is not an immediate option because of a lack of funding.