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Alachua County Officials Explore Repurposing Former High Springs Church For New Community Resource Center

A new community outreach and resource center may be on the horizon for residents of northwestern Alachua County.

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners is exploring the idea of purchasing the former Fellowship Baptist Church in High Springs to serve as the location for a new community resource center. The church, located off of U.S. Highway 441, came up for sale after the church leaders decided to relocate its services.

The goal of this center would be to allow residents of outlying cities in the county to have easier access to county, city and community offices and facilities that are located mainly in Gainesville.

Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler was approached with the idea of creating a more accessible resource center for residents of northwestern Alachua County by former High Springs City Commissioner, Nancy Lavin and former Newberry City Commissioner, Joy Glanzer. On the Board of Alachua County Commissioners, Wheeler represents District 2, which includes all of High Springs and parts of Alachua and Newberry.

“Because they know what the needs of their community are or have been, they thought that this really wonderful location to serve as a community outreach location,” Wheeler said. “They knew that I would be interested in making sure that the services that are needed up there would be available.”

The county is being offered 9 acres of the 20-acre property for an asking price of $3.3 million. According to the real estate listing, the main building can hold up to 500 people and the property includes over 30 offices and conference rooms. A 10,000-square-foot indoor gymnasium is also attached.

On March 2, during a special committee meeting Commissioner Mary Alford expressed support for the purchase after touring the property with the other county commissioners a week prior.

“I’m really in favor of this,” Alford said. “I think this came up at exactly the right time.”'District 3 County Commissioner Anna Prizzia also stated her support for the purchase, saying she has no doubt at all that there is a need for this outreach center. Prizzia also discussed how some local community organizations have expressed support for this purchase by the county, including Family Promise of Gainesville and St. Madeleine Community Outreach.

St. Madeleine Community Outreach is one major social service that serves residents of northwestern Alachua County. Lavin noted that between 2018 to 2019, this organization served approximately 16,000 individuals in the county. After funding for the organization was pulled, it was only able to serve 4,002 individuals in 2020.

“Our resources in our community are tapped out,” Lavin .

Meridian Behavioral Healthcare’s CEO Don Savoie has also expressed support of the purchase and an interest in bringing the organization’s services out to this location. When asked why Meridian supports the purchase of the church, Savoie said, “The simple answer is access to care.”

“Having a presence north of town in a growing community like High Springs and Alachua is really part of being available for what is an increasing demand and need for behavioral health services,” he said. “To help folks, you need to be where they are.”

He noted that Meridian currently serves approximately 1,000 individuals in the northwestern area of the county. Savoie explained that a lack of transportation often serves as a barrier for individuals receiving care from Meridian and for those who may be seeking services. He explained that many individuals may not have the ability to travel to the local Gainesville office.

“For the folks we serve, it would be much easier for them to receive the care we provide by increasing their access and lowering transportation barriers,” Savoie said. “But we also know that there are a lot of folks that need care.”

Savoie noted the potential services that could be provided by Meridian at the resource center include counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment and psychiatric care. Community-based group services, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, may also be considered.

“I think that it’s the right place, in the right area, at the right time for Alachua to really expand or get a presence for a full continuum of community-based services,” Savoie said.

During the March 2 meeting, the board of county commissioners unanimously agreed to take the next steps in purchasing the property. This includes creating an option contract with the seller, which gives the county 90 days to further investigate and assess the property.

Ramon Gavarrete, public works director for Alachua County, explained that under Florida state statute, if the asking price of the property is over $500,000, two appraisals on the property have to be completed. Each appraisal estimates the value of the property.

He explained that the county will use the estimates provided by the appraisals to determine the price it will offer to purchase the property.

“In this case, we are proposing to pay the appraised value if the seller is willing to do so,” he said.

Gavarrete estimates that each of the two appraisals will cost between $14,000 to $15,000, adding an additional $30,000 to the price of the property.

Prior to the purchase, inspections will also be completed on major components of the building, including the roof, the flooring and the air conditioning units. The county also wants to make sure that the building is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure all individuals will be able to have access, Gavarrete said.

Along with the assessments, the next step for the county would be to create a concrete plan for the programs that could potentially be housed in the facility. Wheeler explained that the county also needs to determine how the expenses for operating the facility will be paid.

“The main thing would be the operating costs, going year to year,” she said. “We just need to find who are the willing partners who would be willing to go in there and help us keep the lights on.”

At the board meeting, Alachua County Commission Chair Ken Cornell explained that he hopes that the three cities, Newberry, Alachua and High Springs, will cover the management and operation of the resource center. He explained that the county would be willing to make the one- time purchase of the facility but hopes that the cities would take on the day-to-day management of the center.

Though this project is still in its earliest stages, Wheeler is optimistic about its prospects as a fruitful resource center that will address the needs of the residents in outlying cities of Alachua County in an accessible manner.

“A lot of our concerns that have come from the outlying municipalities have been that we fail to acknowledge the needs of the rural communities,” she said. “This gives us a way to focus on those needs and actually address them in a way that’s more convenient for them.”

Haleigh is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.