Developers of proposed mental health facility court neighbors ahead of council decision

A man unlocks a chain to open a fence.
Developer Lee "Woody" Wood unlocking the gate to the property on 100 Poydras St. that could become a mental health facility if a necessary zoning change is approved. Photo by Alena Maschke

The former J. Wallace James Elementary School on Poydras Street on the northside of Lafayette may become a clinic offering inpatient and outpatient treatment to those struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues — that’s if developers can convince neighborhood residents that it’s a good idea.

Lee “Woody” Wood, one of the developers behind the proposed facility, has been attending neighborhood meetings to answer questions and alleviate any concerns residents might have about hosting mental health services in their neighborhood.

“We didn’t want to hide anything,” said Wood, a former radio DJ, insurance salesman and financial adviser. His partner in the venture is restaurateur Tim Metcalf, who is also an investor in a senior assisted living facility Wood stood up in Maurice, his home of nearly three decades.

Responses have been mixed.

When Wood presented his plans to residents at a recent La Place Coterie meeting, coterie members and representatives of organizations in both the homelessness and mental health fields were curious.

“It certainly seems like any help we can get with mental health would be welcome,” said Cathleen Narido, staff member at Catholic Charities of Acadiana, which runs St. Joseph Diner homeless services center in the neighborhood. But, she added, “I’d like to know more.”

Coterie member James Proctor was skeptical. “This neighborhood is already a dumping ground for people in crisis,” Proctor said. In the past, homeless services providers have lamented hospitals’ practice of dropping off indigent patients at their doorstep, in bad health and with nowhere to go.

Proctor is concerned that after patients are released they might be stranded and add to an already challenging concentration of people in need of services locally. “There’s a cost they’re not mentioning,” he said of the developers.

At the meeting, Wood did his best to assuage those fears, assuring attendees that patients would not be left to wander the neighborhood after they’re discharged. Details, he noted, would have to be provided by the operator, Southern Evals, a medical consulting and staffing company based in Pineville.

While Woods emphasized the developers’ commitment to transparency, he admitted they would need more time to find answers to some of the operational questions that have come up in the two community meetings they participated in so far.

The plans are still in their early stages, but a necessary zoning change dragged them into the public eye earlier than the developers had hoped. “It has sort of backfired on us because of the questions we can’t answer,” Wood said. “We’re doing the best that we can.”

A desk sits in the open entryway of an abandoned building.
The entrance of the former J. Wallace James Elementary School in north Lafayette on Wednesday, Sept. 20. Photo by Alena Maschke

The zoning change, which is necessary for the facility to operate as planned, was scheduled to go before the Lafayette City Council on Tuesday, but was deferred for 30 days at the request of Councilmember Pat Lewis.

Lewis, who organized the first community meeting on the plans for the facility, said he needed more time to gather feedback from his constituents in order to vote on the proposal.

“Something of that magnitude, I want to know what’s being proposed, I want to hear what they think about it,” Lewis said.

“There’s a lot of people in the area that can use that type of service,” Lewis added. “People need help.” But in the end, Lewis noted, it was up to his constituents to decide whether they wanted a facility providing those services in their neighborhood and he would be voting based on their input.

Without the zoning change, any commercial use of the property would be challenging if not impossible, Wood pointed out.

The property is currently owned by Pro Tech Management LLC, a company run by retired Lafayette accountant Ronald Prejean, who purchased it at a sheriff’s auction last year.

Used by the sheriff’s office for probation and parole services, video visitation for inmates and administrative work, the property is currently zoned for residential use and in need of significant renovations, according to Wood.

The investors estimate that they will need to invest at least $3 million for the building to be eligible for commercial use, including the installation of sprinklers, new A/C and renovations to the sewer system. The total investment into the building is likely to approach $10 million, according to Wood. If not for his company’s investment, Wood said, the building might end up sitting empty.

Residents will have at least three more weeks to provide their feedback on the issue. Although a specific date has not been set yet, Lewis said he hopes to convene another neighborhood meeting the second week of October to help inform his vote on the matter.