What's behind the City's move to purchase the Virginia College property on Veterans Parkway?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Are all the costs begin considered? Should this be a separate bond or part of a SPLOST? Is the move in the best interest of the customers who use it on a daily basis?
Mounting concerns about access to its new home are causing clients to question the relocation of the Health and Human Services Centre from the grounds of the Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown Campus to the former home of Virginia College — a private institution that a year ago closed its doors at 5601 Veteran’s Parkway.
For decades, a plethora of state and local agencies that serve the medical needs of predominantly low-income clients has operated out of the Health and Human Services facility at 2100 Comer Avenue in the shadow of the historic hospital complex.
How many of these agencies might make the potential move isn’t clear but a private survey of around 1,000 clients indicates 99.8 percent of them believe moving the health department and the offices of WIC across town would be a hardship. That same survey indicates that 35 percent of the people who depend on such services get there by either a city bus or a taxi.
News first broke about the Consolidated Government’s $5 million plan to buy the former college campus after a meeting of Columbus Council on Nov. 13. Councilors were told of the plan in an executive session following the regular meeting.
The building has been vacant for over a year since Virginia College’s parent company announced the closure of its 28 campuses across the country, including Columbus. The building was originally built around 45 years ago and for years housed a building supply operation. Original news reports said the purchase price would be $2.5 million and that the building would be used as city office space. The cost of a bond issue added another $2.5 million to the transaction.
A month after council was informed about the idea of buying the site on Veteran’s Parkway they were presented a plan to make that property the new home of Health and Human Services. They were told that the lease on Comer Avenue expires in June 2020 and that the move would be financially prudent for the city.
By law the city must provide space for the health department.
Councilors knew nothing about that proposal until an executive session was called after the council meeting on Dec. 10. At that point, neither did Tracy Sayers, Chief Operating Officer of Family Holdings Sub LLC, the owner of the Comer Avenue property.His company heard news about the Virginia College idea from a third-party and was surprised since, as landlords, they had never received a complaint about the existing lease on Comer Avenue.
Council members were not part of those early discussions. Later they were told that in the long term it would be better to own a building than to continue as tenants.
“We were told that it would be cheaper to buy the building than to continue to pay rent at the old site,” Councilor Judy Thomas says.
At the same time, she is unhappy that council was kept out of the loop about the plan until so late in the discussion. “We have signed off on it but it is not a done deal,” Thomas says. “We are continuing due diligence on the deal, but to do that the administration has to keep us informed.”
Lots of numbers have been thrown around, but all parties agree there have been no negotiations about the price of rent for the old location.
Councilor John House says he began to hear questions about transportation after council’s original vote. “We knew it was a concern because we heard a lot about it at one of the mayor’s ‘Let’s Talk’ public meetings.”
To deal with the transportation issue, City Manager Isaiah Hugley informed members of the public and council on Tuesday that the city plans to develop a free shuttle service to take clients from the bus transfer center to the HHS building to the new location.
Operating the shuttle won’t be cheap though Hugley did not mention what it will cost to operate it. Many passengers using such a service will have serious medical challenges and may require special provisions. Such clients may also need to go back and forth between facilities more than one time a day.Unexpected construction and renovations may also be expensive. Years ago the original design process for the Comer Avenue building required many months since the agencies involved presented a long list of needs that went beyond regular construction.
Councilors say they haven’t been told how much that round-trip service will cost the city or whether transportation funds were included in the $5 million purchase price of the Virginia College site. Nor was there a clear indication of how long the city would operate the shuttle.
House says council is just trying to do its job. “We’re just trying to serve taxpayers and be good stewards of their money,” he added.
Sayers continues to ask questions about the purchase and the costs involved with relocating and renovating the old campus. The city claims the project will be completed by June but some officials wonder about that timetable and if the city will have enough money to complete the project.Longtime observers remind citizens that the old building was specially designed as a health facility. It has a command center for security purposes and is equipped with 32 panic buttons to insure the safety of its clients.
Others talk about human needs more than the bottom line. They ignore the politics. They worry about the distance sick clients may have to travel for vital treatment and diagnosis — special care that these people have been getting close to home for so long.
Without a shuttle.
The Health and Human Services Building, located at 2100 Comer Avenue in Columbus, houses a number of state and local departments and social service agencies, including:
Department of Family and Children’s Services
Utility Assistance Office
Georgia Department of Public Health
Columbus Health Department
Community Health Pharmacy
Adult Medical Care
Pediatric Medical Care
West Central Health District
New Horizon’s Behavioral Health
New Horizon’s Community Service Board
WIC Food Pantry
Veteran’s Vocational Training & Career Center