• Richard Hyatt

Questions about the future of the Health and Human Services Building continue unanswered.

Questions about the future of the Health and Human Service Building’s controversial move to the old Virginia College campus on Veteran’s Parkway are stacking higher and any real answers may be at least a week away.

There have been whispers that several local contractors have already been discussing doing renovation work on the former college site at 5601 Veteran’s Parkway, but Columbus Council member Judy Thomas put that talk to rest on Monday.

“If they’ve been doing that they have not come to council for permission which, to me, would make that move null and void,” Thomas said.

For years, a busy list of medical agencies has operated out of the HHS facility. In November, city officials began to discuss the possibility of moving away from the Piedmont Columbus Regional Midtown Campus — an area that been a Mecca for local people in need of medical attention since 1895.

The $6.8 million HHS building opened in 1997 and in a recent interview retired Medical Center Director Larry Sanders — the impetus behind that project — called the early public-private partnership “a true community effort.” He said it “was one of the best things we ever did.”

The facility brought together agencies that didn’t always work and play well together. They came together out of a common need. “The focus of that complex was first and foremost the needs of its clientele,” Margaret Gosden, a former district administrator for the Columbus Health Department, said recently.

“And if this new facility is going to be successful it will have to do the same things,” she said.

Former workers at the HHS remember the warm feelings people talked about when they visited the building and the dignity that it brought to the clients it served.

This was truly a community effort,” a proud Sanders says.

In November and December, council members voted themselves into executive session more than once to discuss the Virginia College project. Council didn’t meet during the holiday period so the meeting next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. will be the first one of 2020. Tuesday’s meeting will deal primarily with resolutions meaning it will be the Jan. 13, 2020 before serious discussions on this project will resume.

There has been little talk about the historic significance of the property around the HHS, which has been serving the health needs of the community for nearly 125 years. Sick people in Columbus have been doing to neighborhoods around Linwood Cemetery for care since 1836.

Eight years after the city’s incorporation, Columbus opened its first hospital on Lower Broad. Known as the Pest House, it treated alcoholism and quarantined patients with contagious diseases such as smallpox. It served needy patients until 1894.

In that same era, public health conditions threatened the welfare of the entire community. In Red Clay, White Water & Blues, Columbus State University professor emerita Virginia E. Causey’s history of the city — she described severe problems with sanitation.

Causey’s picture is dire. In a 12-month period, the city hauled away 48 dead horses and mules, 26 cows, 287 dogs, over 400 cats, nearly 2,000 chickens, 320 rats, 1,500 barrels of rotting oyster shells and 128 barrels of human feces. Public works officials warned of a major health calamity unless something was done about those conditions.

By 1915, officials built a 4-story brick hospital on the highest point in Rose Hill. That location morphed into the Midtown Medical Center. Still later it became Piedmont Columbus Regional — the largest public hospital in the city.

The current Health and Human Services Building at 2100 Comer Avenue is only a short walk away from the main hospital.

Important health agencies have been close to this site for years until talk erupted about the move to the old Virginia College location. It has been vacant for about a year since the college’s parent company, Education Corporation of America, began shutting down its private schools nationwide.This followed Virginia College’s unexpected loss of federal accreditation in December 2018. This affected close to 20,000 students on 27 campuses across the country

Questions. Good questions are out there.

But they’re being asked behind closed doors and no one knows why.

Before a decision is made to dismantle the longstanding HHS concept, the city has to provide answers. Why is this move being proposed? Is it a good idea? Can the city afford it? And can this project be accomplished by the June deadline?

When is the city going to step out of the shadows with some answers?

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© 2020 by Richard Hyatt