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South-side residents hope health center can spark change

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman today announced plans to rebuild the John Maloney South Side Health Center on Parsons Avenue. The move comes two years after officials closed and demolished the original facility because of structural damage. Neighborhood residents say need better access health care, and they welcome any sign of economicdevelopment. Standing with various city leaders by his side, Mayor Coleman called the resurrection of the south-side health center a watershed moment for the community.

"I've worked with these neighbors. I'm proud of what they're doing, but we're about to get a great infusion for a great community."

The city has set aside $750,000 for design work, and is scheduled to break ground in May. Coleman expects the center to be complete in time for the city's bicentennial celebration in 2012.

It will be the fifth center in the city's Neighborhood Health Center network. Lauraine Furtado chairs the board that oversees the neighborhood centers. She says the city as a whole needs better access to health care, but the need here on the south side is exponentially worse.

"The West side is very much in need of an additional facility, which is being built," Furtado says. "And we have other areas that require additional health care for the under served. But this area does need it, there's no question. We wouldn't be building a second facility if there wasn't a critical need for it."

Furtado and Mayor Coleman see the center not only as a means to better and quicker access to health care, but as a catalyst for economic change.

Closed businesses, graffiti-ridden walls and abandoned houses adorn much of Parsons Avenue and nearby streets. Delbert Lawrence stood behind the crowd and cameras at the mayor's announcement. He's lived on the South Side most of his life. He remembers a more vibrant and safer neighborhood as a kid.

"This place, when it was open man, there was business coming in and out of here at all times at once. Towards the end of it, that's when things started to die down and the trouble started to come in. Prostituion, drug users, drug dealers. You name it, it's here."

Lawrence says he's happy city leaders are paying attention to his neighborhood. He likes the idea of better access to health care, especially for his three kids. But he says he's skeptical the center will bring much economic development.

It's close to lunch time at the South Side Settlement House. The complex is just a block west of where the new health center will sit. The building is a social hub, and hosts everything from family counciling to art classes to a food pantry. Volunteer Mary Franklin stocks shelves with rice donated by a local grocery store.

Franklin says the food pantry has seen an increase in demand over the last few years as many neighborhood businesses have closed their doors. She's more optimistic about the health care facility bringing development. She says it's simple economics.

"If people are coming and going to the health center, they're going to stop in the stores," Franklin says. "Most people in the south end really support the merchants on the south side."

As you talk to Franklin and others about their neighborhood, they all urge you to talk to Carrie Garnes. Garnes is the defacto oral historian of the neighborhood. She's lived in her house on Barthman Avenue since the 1950, and can recite every major event since the Truman administration. She welcomes the center. She says most residents don't have health insurance, and even if they do, the closest clinic is three miles away.

"A lot of people need it, and need it right now. If you don't have transportation like an automobile, all you can do is dial 911. That's the problem with a lot of cases."

Garnes says she's lucky because she has her husband to drive her. They've done well for themselves. They own several nearby rentals, but choose to stay here because, she says, it's home.