Garthia Elena Burnett: Back to the drawing board on health department site selection

May 17, 2009

Garthia Elena Burnett -


Ever notice how too many choices sometimes can turn into paralysis? 


It''s a problem the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors seems to have run into with building a new health department. 


But this particular loss of movement could cost the county a $600,000 grant. 


And area residents (as well as the supervisors, themselves) are restless, wanting to see the old, dilapidated building on Military Road replaced. 


But the closer we seem to get to building a new Lowndes County Health Department, the less likely it looks to be coming to fruition any time soon. 


The supervisors have assured us it''s going to happen. They''ve got the Mississippi Development Authority''s $600,000 grant to use by Aug. 1, 2010, and they''ve even voted to buy a parcel of land. 


But with the landowner in Lowndes County Chancery Court in a $10 million dispute, with the possibility of more lawsuits to come and a $1.1 million IRS tax lien, the Chubby Drive land, owned by Don DePriest, could be tied up too long for the supervisors to make the August 2010 construction deadline. 


A year ago, the supervisors had it narrowed down to one of four choices: 


1. Renovating the current Military Road facility. (It would need entirely too massive an overhaul, they decided.) 


2. Tearing down the old building and constructing a new one on the same site. (The old site isn''t large enough to accommodate a new facility.) 


3. Renovating or tearing down Union Academy Elementary School, which, as of the close of last school year, no longer is used for instructional purposes. ($315,000, plus the cost to tear it down, before construction ever began, according to County Administrator Ralph Billingsley. And before the 1950s, Union Academy was the only public school in the area for black students who wanted to attend past the sixth grade. So, many have advocated preserving its rich history somehow rather than tearing it down.) 


4. Buying property adjacent to the health department from Tom Sneed to build a new facility. ($140,000, plus the cost of tearing down existing buildings and housing health department operations during construction.) 


District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks suggested the board look into using two acres of county-owned land near the jail, on Martin Luther King Drive. 


"I just want the health department to be as close as possible to the clients it''s going to serve," Brooks said. "And I think we need to proceed to as expeditiously as possible, because we''ve been at this for about three years." 


On Dec. 1, 2008, with their eyes fixed on the $600,000 MDA grant, the supervisors voted to begin environmental testing on the land. 


Later in the same month, the supervisors voted to buy the two acres of land on Chubby Drive -- for $230,000 -- from DePriest. Since then, DePriest has resigned from the TVA board and is awaiting judgment on a case brought against him by Oliver Phillips, who served as DePriest''s accountant for nearly 30 years and co-owns Plantation Pointe Retirement Community. 


Now -- always thinking ahead -- Billingsley and District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders have another option in the can. 


"We''ve got a backup in case something happens with the other land," Sanders said. 


The board actually has two "backups." 


The land Sanders is rooting for in East Columbus, immediately north of the intersection of Lehmberg and Warpath roads; seven acres are available. 


The county would need about 3.5 acres of the land, Sanders noted, adding it would mean easy access to the health department for people living in East Columbus, New Hope and along Highway 12. 


According to Sanders, the neighbors are on board with the plan, and owner Tommy Lott recently had the area, previously zoned as R-1 single-family residential, rezoned to C-1-R neighborhood commercial restricted, to enable placement of a health department. 


Sanders, who declined to reveal the purchase price of the land, did say it came in at a lower price tag than the land on Chubby Drive. 


The other alternative is Ceco-owned land, neighboring the Chubby Drive property, one of the sites considered previously. The owners then had declined to sell the property -- two acres, at about the same price as the Chubby Drive land. 


For District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, the Ceco-owned land is prime real estate for the health department should DePriest''s land fall out of play. 


"If something doesn''t pan out with the Chubby Lane (land), Ceco would be our deal because that''s the site we targeted originally, but Ceco wasn''t interested in selling," said Smith. "And we''re only talking about a block, across the street from the Chubby Lane property." 


Things have changed since the board last was in negotiations with Roger Burlingame, general manager and vice president of the Southern region for Ceco. 


A sale now looks promising, said District 2 Supervisor Frank Ferguson, who''s been discussing the possibility with Burlingame. 


"The window''s closing," he said. "We want to go ahead and act on this thing." 


For Ferguson, the Ceco land makes more sense than the more obscure Lehmberg Road property. 


"More people visit Highway 45 than they do Lehmberg Road," he offered. "It''s easier to find, easier to get to, and Lehmberg is more of a transit road." 


Its close proximity to the hospital also is a plus, he said. 


District 3 Supervisor John Holliman also favors the Ceco site. 


"It''s in a commercial area, not in a residential area, like the health department is now," he said. 


If placed on the Lehmberg-Warpath land, the health department would have housing and the Plantation Pointe nursing home as its neighbors. Also, said Holliman, "I think it''s in a flood plain." 


And during heavy rains, patrons would have to somehow circumnavigate parts of Lehmberg. Portions of the road have been closed at least twice this year due to heavy flooding. 


Brooks, who voted against purchasing the land on Chubby Drive, still believes going with county-owned property is the best bet, even if it means rebuilding on the current site. 


"I think that if we''re not able to consummate a deal real quick, that option may be put back on the table," he offered. "At this juncture, I just want to see the process proceed." 


On June 1, Billingsley will report to the supervisors the status of the DePriest land, still the land of choice, since the county now has an agreement to purchase it. 


Hopefully that, or something, will happen soon. 


Because, like it or not, Sanders has one very valid point: "Time is of the essence." 


Garthia Elena Burnett is news editor of The Dispatch. Contact her at [email protected]