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Bowron bug-out?

It’s back — but then again, it never left, like a fly at a picnic that just won’t go away. County commissioners once again are openly talking about moving the county Health Department out of the historic Bowron building on Main Street.

It’s not the same fly, however, and it may not be one they want to shoo away.

A potential partner, St. Luke Hospital, entered the mix Monday. CEO Jeremy Ensey offered the possibility of renting out unused clinic space at the hospital to house the department.

Are the current quarters too cramped? How so? I’ve heard a few anecdotes, but haven’t ever seen a formal space utilization analysis. Too far away from the courthouse for good customer service? Absurd. The walk from the courthouse to the health department is shorter than taking a walk down the length of Towne East mall. I’ve yet to see any data on utilization rates to support the need for a change. Arguments about security of client records and confidentiality have some merit, but is there really no workable solution?

On the other hand, moving the department to St. Luke seems worthy of consideration. It was said at the commission meeting there’s more space than the department needs, so that bug would be put to rest.

Putting health care resources together makes sense, too. It’s far more likely clients would access resources of both entities, particularly because referrals and resources would be just steps away. Health department employees would have access to consultation resources, and there would be partnership opportunities for providing preventive health services such as workshops to benefit the clientele of each.

The discussions Monday were preliminary, but commissioners set aside time at their next meeting to more fully investigate the matter, as well they should.

The suggestion such a move would be a temporary, short-term is itself short-sighted, focused more in the moment on department operation than long-term customer benefits. With the natural fit and potential advantages, serious consideration should be given to a long-term arrangement, if it fits in the long-term plans of the hospital. This solution could be a win-win for St. Luke and the Health Department.

The grand old Bowron building, however, is a potential loser in the deal. Without the Health Department, there’s less incentive to keep the Planning and Zoning Department there. There’s less need to consider renovation plans that would have upgraded the condition of the building to where it might last another 100 years as an architectural icon of the city’s proud history. Would the vacated space be filled? With other vacant storefronts around, it’s anybody’s guess. If the building simply went away, it would irreparably tarnish the charm of Marion’s downtown so many people talk about.

Any plan to move the Health Department out should be complemented by active planning for the Bowron building. How will it continue to be used? What should be done with the empty space? What steps need to be taken to preserve the integrity of the building? Marion folk should demand nothing less. This shouldn’t be a “let’s do one first, and we’ll get around to the other later” proposition. Too many times we’ve seen that “later” never comes.

Granted, none of us has heard plans in full detail yet, but details are coming. My initial reaction is that a temporary fix while waiting for a new building near the courthouse isn’t nearly as good a solution as a long-term collaboration between two complementary health care partners. That could be a terrific fix.

Meanwhile, the Bowron building shouldn’t become the next fly at the picnic. It deserves more.

— david colburn

Last modified Nov. 20, 2014

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