• Richard Hyatt

"This project started around a table where everyone had a need" ...

It was not a pretty sight. Shivering people in need of help were crushed against the naked wall of the old Department of Family and Children Services building just off 18th Street hoping to soak up some warmth. Others huddled together inside cars in the parking lot for there wasn’t a proper waiting room inside.

By the late 1980s, Larry Sanders, an administrator at the Columbus Medical Center for nearly 10 years, was chairman of the Columbus Regional Healthcare System. His office was next door overlooking the dilapidated DFCS building.

Years have passed, but Sanders can’t forget that old medical campus. He remembers the sorry condition of the health department, that it was even older than the hospital, and how the DFCS building was the worst of all.

“Seeing those people out there in the cold like that, I wasn’t just an embarrassment for me. I was embarrassed for the community,” says Sanders, who retired in 2011.

Margaret Gosden, also retired, worked side by side with Sanders. Her most dynamic memory is about the drafty places they were expected to conduct well-baby clinics and how inhumane that was. “You could look at those tiny babies laying on the chest of their mothers and see how cold they were. That would throw me into orbit.”

These episodes and others like them helped inspire Sanders and his team to come up with the concept of the Health and Human Services Building a well-planned facility that brought such services and programs together in a building on Comer Avenue.

This project started around a table where everyone had a need.

A tenant council was formed with every agency in the health community represented by a project manager. “It was magic what you could accomplish if you worked together,” Gosden says.

Out of that came a one-stop shop for health services, a specially designed super market that provided a single facility where people could find help.  Since 1997 it has conveniently housed 19 state and local agencies at 2100 Comer Avenue in the heart of the city’s historic hospital community.

Then in November of last year talk began about relocating HHS services to 5601 Veteran’s Parkway, the former home of Virginia College. Located between a real estate firm and a pharmacy, it was a private institution that had lost its accreditation. The school had shut down its 28 campuses nationwide.

Columbus Council voted to make the buy in November with hopes of closing the deal by February 2020. At first it was going to be a city office building but that idea soon changed. Since then, little has been said about the transaction to council members or to the public for almost all of the discussions have come in executive sessions conducted after the open meetings.

The only open discussions have revolved about how clients would be able get from the area around Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown Campus to the new site. To alleviate those fears, the city has said it plans to run a free shuttle from Comer Avenue to Veteran’s Parkway.

For the first time, the Virginia College project is listed on the agenda for Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting of Columbus Council. Deputy City Manager Pam Hodge is scheduled to present an update on the controversial relocation.

Just last week, Mayor Skip Henderson revealed that only six of the existing 19 tenants are expected to make the move, headed by the Columbus Health Department — which currently takes up 66 percent of the floor space. Joining the CHD would be Physical Health; Vector Control, District Child Health; EP/EMS; Emergency Command; and File Archives. Under state mandate, the Consolidated Government must provide a home to those specified agencies.

§ 31-3-9 -

County boards of health; office quarters and equipment

The governing body of the county shall provide the county board of health with quarters and equipment sufficient for its operation.

Nearly 20,000 people use this one-stop shop every month. That adds up to around 350,000 clients every year. Surveys indicate that 35 percent of the users depend on either a bus or a taxi for transportation and 98.8 percent of those clients believe the four-mile move would be a hardship.

Family Holdings Sub LLC of Columbus is the current owner of the Comer Avenue property.

The purchase price of the Virginia College site was $5 million, with half of those funds going toward city bonds. The city expects the deal to close by February.

Officials project a move-in date in June after the lease on Comer Avenue expires. However, several private contractors in Columbus do not think the Virginia College project will come in at budget and doubt that the finishing date can be met.

Mayor Skip Henderson disagrees.

“We’ve met every challenge,” he says. “I’ve seen no red flags.”

Nor does the mayor apologize for the city’s reticence in making public comments about the project up to now.

“After we close on the property we’ll be more aggressive.”


Here’s the complete list of agencies and services now available at The Health and Human Services Building:

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

Dental Care

Vision Care

West Central Health District

Child Health

New Horizon’s Behavioral Health

Mental Health

Substance Abuse

Addiction Counseling

New Horizon’s Community Service Board

WIC Clinic

WIC Food Pantry

Veteran’s Vocational Training & Career Center

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© 2020 by Richard Hyatt