Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
After a months-long stalemate, contractors are now moving St. Bernard Parish’s temporary health center from the Wal-Mart parking lot in hopes that the retailer will consider reopening the Chalmette store.
The complicated move, involving piece-by-piece dismantling of two massive double-wide trailers, will cost $880,000, to be paid by FEMA.
Parish politicians and residents have been eager for the retailer’s return, for the convenience as well as the sales-tax revenue it could bring.
Wal-Mart officials have said the presence of the health center in the vacant store’s parking lot has prevented any decision on reopening, but a company spokesman said this week that the move will allow Wal-Mart to make a decision “fairly shortly on our future in Chalmette.”
Parish President Craig Taffaro has budgeted an additional $500,000 in sales-tax revenue this year in anticipation of the store’s return.
“We’ll soon know whether Wal-Mart was using the issue as a shield or if this was a real issue for them,” Taffaro told the Parish Council last week. “Now that the trailer has been moved, the ball’s back in their court.”
The parish and Wal-Mart have discussed the post-storm reopening for years, but the retailer has held off on hiring contractors to reassess the property because it was uncertain how long the health center would remain. Wal-Mart spokesman Tice White said the company was not pushing the parish to move the trailers, but he acknowledged that the presence of the trailers did delay the process.
“When there are obstacles that come up that you have to work through, what happens is that sometimes there are those projects that may have been planned, then other projects get inserted in front of them,” White said. “We still have Chalmette as a very high priority for our company, and I want the people to know that we’re going to do our best and give them a decision one way or another in a timely fashion. We don’t want to prolong this.”
Along with finding a new site for the trailers, finding money to pay for the move has been a challenge, but over the past month FEMA has pledged to pick up the entire tab. The Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, a parish nonprofit, donated the former off-track betting parking lot as a site.
The center is one of the few options for health care in the parish, which has no hospital and only a handful of private practices.
Though it appears to be housed in two large double-wide trailers, in reality the health center is made up of 26 different sections that must be split apart, then moved across Judge Perez Drive to the new site and reassembled.
Over the past week, workers with BB&K Setters, a subcontractor of Boasso Construction, have been piecing together the first 13 segments of the health center. Doctors and patients are now operating out of the 13 that remain intact in the Wal-Mart lot.
Moving the trailers involves splitting electrical, plumbing and ventilation lines and then connecting them again. Once the trailers are hooked back together with a series of bolts, workers can fine-tune the interior details by installing new walls and tiles where the trailers were split.
On Friday afternoon, workers were fixing the interiors of the two-trailer waiting area for the clinic. Another cross-section with black leather examining chairs was in the parking lot ready to be attached.
Workers are scheduled to finish the first 13 segments by the end of today. The doctors will then move offices and patients from the 13 remaining Wal-Mart trailers over to the newly assembled ones, allowing for the rest of them to be taken apart and moved.
The health center should be fully moved by the first week of April, Taffaro said.
Folino, the health center administrator, said the normal hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, will remain the same during the move.
Either next weekend or the weekend after, employees will switch offices from the Wal-Mart site to the new one on Sunday night, in preparation for normal services Monday morning.
Chris Kirkham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3321