By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 29, 2018) It was a family affair on Tuesday, as representatives from Community Behavior Health signed a memorandum of understanding to bring a wide range of mental health care services to the old Oscar Purnell Mansion on 107 East Market Street in Snow Hill.
The practice will essentially get the building for free, but agreed to pay for about $500,000 worth of renovations and operate the business in Snow Hill for at least five years.
Present during a signing ceremony was Dr. Niru Jani, his wife Dr. Sushma Jani, daughter Dr. Suni Jani, and son Dr. Raja Jani.
Also attending were Snow Hill Mayor Charlie Dorman, councilwomen Diana Purnell and Jenny Hall, Economic Development Coordinator Michael Day, Code Enforcement Officer Jon Hill, and Trish Goodsell, assistant to the town manager.
Dr. Suni Jani said the family learned about the property through Hill.
“We understood that, outside of the health department, this is an underserved region in terms of mental health services,” she said. “We needed a clinic to work out of, so it seemed to be a mutually beneficial opportunity.
“Jon said this has a lot of historical value and a lot of sentimental value to the city, and it’s something that needed to be rebuilt,” she continued, adding the plan was to preserve as much of the historical and sentimental value as possible. “It’s a really massive privilege to be able to do something like that, but it’s something that’s going to come in stages.”
She said transforming the enormous house, about 5,700 square feet over three stories, not to mention a full basement, would not happen overnight. Contractor estimates were for 12-18 months of work.
“Our hope was, as soon as its safe to run a clinic in here, we’d have at least one floor that we’re doing work out of,” she said, adding a full renovation of the home would eventually allow for visiting doctors to stay there. “A lot of what we do involves volunteer resident student-physicians, because that’s how we train and do our work – we train the next generation of physicians. That’s kind of what our master plan is.”
When touring the house, Jani said she and her family were mindful of the potential usage for such a large area.
“People need that space, because mental health services aren’t just talking to someone,” she said. “Sometimes it’s having that respite, it’s having to get away from people for a while, so there’s group services, there’s learning social skills, there’s learning how to get along with other people in a contained setting … this house, in a very interesting way with all its space, gives people the opportunity to get away.”
She said the Snow Hill branch of Community Behavior Health would eventually offer individual, family and couple’s counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and addictions services.
“I know this region has an opioid crisis, so that’s definitely a major focus,” Jani said.
There are also branches of the practice in Salisbury, Cambridge, Chestertown, Centerville, and the original location in Columbia.
“This is a really overlooked region for the work we do, so this building was serendipitous,” Jani said. “This building’s existence is very important and the work we want to do is very meaningful, and this building is letting us do it.”
Oscar Purnell, who was “born in a little farm outside of town,” according to Hill, built the house around 1900.
Purnell attended Washington College in Chestertown and graduated with a liberal arts degree, later also earning a law degree, Hill said. He practiced law and was the editor- in-chief of the Democratic Messenger, “which was regarded as one of the best papers in the state of Maryland,” Hill said.
“That’s when he built his home and it was obviously built for display, as a showpiece, because there’s so much area in here that isn’t really usable for a residence. A grand entrance like this looks like something you’d find in a hotel at the time,” Hill said.
He said the county took ownership of the home and used it for office space for 15-20 years. Both the Worcester County Developmental Center and the Worcester County Sheriff has offices there.
“And then [the county] gave it to the town, and when they did that, they invested around $1.2 million to the exterior of the building,” Hill said. “They replaced all the windows … the exterior, the columns were repaired, the roof was repaired. A lot of work was put into it to kind of preserve it, because they didn’t know what they were going to do with it, besides give it to the town.”
Hill said town officials looked for a suitable tenant for the Oscar Purnell Mansion for about 12 years.
“Of course, we’ve always wanted things like a restaurant or a hotel, but the investment of that level in this building would be astronomical,” he said. “The use that Dr. Jani is bringing here is feasible, for one thing, and it’s going to bring an ever-changing clientele to town.
“It’s going to bring doctors, it’s going to bring families, it’s going to bring children downtown. I can’t imagine, honestly, finding a better, more reasonable use for this location,” Hill continued. “And now I know that this building, that’s 130 years old, is going to be around for more generations.”
Day said he also envisioned a bed and breakfast or a hotel in the space, but he’s thrilled with the new tenants.
“I was glad that this group is going to be bringing people into town. It’s not just going to be offices with eight people that come and stay there,” he said. “It will be bringing people into town and that’s the exciting part about what they’re going to do.”
For more information about Community Behavioral Health, visit www.communitybehavioralhealth.net.