LORAIN — The new $6.6 million Lorain County Health & Dentistry center that dominates the Broadway skyline just south of the city’s downtown was hailed Monday as a major symbol of efforts to bring new life to the city.
The five-story brick building that years ago was home to a local food company also was characterized as a symbol of affordable health care services for thousands of area residents in need.
“What you see happening here is happening all over the country,” Shawn Frick, vice president of the National Association of Community Health Centers, said. “This is part of the rejuvenation of communities all over.”
The National Association of Community Health Centers provides affordable health care services for more than 22 million uninsured or newly-unemployed people in more than 9,000 centers nationally, while offering a far less costly option than use of emergency rooms, according to the agency’s website.
“This is a prime example of what can occur through private-public partnerships,” Frick said.
The county health and dentistry group is a private, nonprofit group that was awarded a $6 million federal grant to renovate a five-floor brick building constructed in the early 1900s to produce clothing by firms, including Richman Brothers.
The $6 million was provided as part of $11 billion set aside for development of community health centers under the Affordable Health Care Act.
Additional funding included $2 million in federal and state tax credits, and a $750,000 bank loan.
The center already is seeing 11,000 patients availing themselves of women’s health, pediatric, dentistry, and asthma/allergy services, but that number is expected to grow by an estimated 7,500 once the facility is fully staffed.
Forty staff will relocate to the new site from a leased center on Livingston Avenue in Lorain, with another 22 professional and support staff personnel expected to be hired over the next two years.
The center is identified as a Lorain County facility, but its doctors and services are available to anyone, regardless of where they live, according to Stephanie Wiersma, president and CEO of Lorain County Health & Dentistry.
“We have people who come from Elyria and Cuyahoga County,” Wiersma said. “This isn’t just for people from Lorain.”
Patients include those who are insured or under-insured, on Medicaid or Medicare, or without any medical insurance.
“It doesn’t matter,” Wiersma said. “We see anyone.”
Most visits will cost $20 to $25 based on income criteria.
Long known as the Gel-Pak building, it was owned and operated by Ben and Doris Gelman, who sold produce to local groceries before expanding sales to restaurants and cafeterias in the 1960s.
Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the brick building sat empty for 20-plus years after Gel-Pak ceased operations in the 1980s.
“We know the problems that blight and vacancy bring,” Ritenauer said as he called the rehabbed structure “a symbol of the great things to happen further north on Broadway.”
The remark was a reference to the city’s long-term plans to bring new life to a long-deteriorating downtown area.
Although the formal ribbon-cutting didn’t occur until Monday, the facility has been in operation since May 20, Wiersma said.
About 32,000 square feet of the 40,000-square-foot building is developed.
The remaining 8,000 square feet on the fourth floor is being held open for future needs, Wiersma said.
Blood services are expected to open in August, while a vision clinic offering a full-time optometrist, exam, testing rooms and eyewear dispensary is projected to be operating in September.
Dental exams and care, including specialized services for children, will be provided by two fulltime dentists, a hygienist and a number of dental assistants, according to Brenda Thiffault, lead dental assistant.