In with the New: Groundbreaking for El Rio’s Congress Health Center Redevelopment Project

May 28, 2013

By Maria Inés Taracena

Robert Gomez Building was built in 1978.

Robert Gomez Building was built in 1978

The diabetes clinic inside the El Rio Community Health Center on Congress Street consists of two small offices for doctors, a waiting room with about 8 chairs that are an inch apart from each other, and an even smaller room for patient care. But, thanks to a grant awarded to the El Rio Health Center Foundation last year, the diabetes clinic will be one of the areas that will receive the biggest improvements during the reconstruction and expansion of the health center.

On May 31, El Rio is hosting a groundbreaking to celebrate this redevelopment project with staff, patients, and other guests. It will be a ceremony to reflect on the work El Rio has done and continues to do in our community, as well as an inauguration of the health center’s promising future.

As Richard Spaulding, Strategic Facilities Director at El Rio, speaks about the upcoming improvements and additions to the health center, his passion and excitement, strongly, come through. And, it is because he knows how much El Rio’s growing patient base will benefit from more space and more health- service options. The area won’t be as crowded, and repairs won’t come as often.

It was about 2008 when it became obvious that the Congress health center’s Robert Gomez building would probably not withstand unlimited years. El Rio’s ambitions for what they want to offer their community are far too big for this 35-year-old building. So, Spaulding spoke with the health center’s architects, and began pushing for the possibility of remodeling the Gomez building and expanding from a two-building corner to nearly an entire block of space for patients and the center’s new projects.

That same year, they applied for a grant that was, sadly, denied. However, in May 2012, El Rio received two federal grant awards from the Department of Health and Human Services, under the Affordable Health Care Act, totaling $5.49 million, as a head start for the redevelopment project.  “The entire project will cost about $14 million, and those grants are going to cover a big chunk of that,” Spaulding says. “It has been a long process, but about one week after the groundbreaking, we will start seeing some action. A fence will go around the construction site, and it will all begin.”

The diabetes clinic at El Rio's Congress Health Center is among the ones that will receive the most expansion

The diabetes clinic at El Rio’s Congress Health Center is among the ones that will receive the most expansion

The new building will be directly in front of the Gomez building, where there is a parking lot at the moment. The Congress health center will continue to function until this new facility is fully equipped to receive patients. Then, the Gomez building will shut down to begin its renovations. The duration time for this construction is still uncertain. It could be a year, and maybe up to two. But, when Spaulding describes his vision, it’s almost as it is, already, standing in front of his eyes. He has been involved with every detail. From the colors to the structure of the building: he knows it all. Architectural-wise, Spaulding says they wanted a new facility that would be cohesive with the rest of Downtown Tucson.

The Congress health center, as well as all El Rio health centers, has helped people with health insurance in addition to uninsured and underinsured Tucsonans for decades. They have the commitment of providing “comprehensible, accessible, affordable, quality, and compassionate care,” and want their mission to match their services and facilities. “The (Gomez) building is not physically laid out so that we can deliver medical care the way we want to right now,” Spaulding says. “Through the years that I have worked here, El Rio has maintained its good quality, but there is always room to grow.”

Jill Rodriguez, Development Coordinator of Corporate Media Relations at El Rio, says that the two areas that will see the most growth are the diabetes clinic and the midwifery. The diabetes clinic will even have a conference room, where people will be able to come in and learn about the disease. But, all other areas will also evolve dramatically. Among the new additions are: a cafeteria that will provide healthy eats, a community garden for people to grow herbs and vegetables, as well as learn healthy recipes from nutritionists, and valet parking so that patients don’t have to worry about walking long distances when arriving to doctor appointments.

“I’m very excited about this project, and for our patients to see the end result,” Spaulding says. “I have seen other neighborhood health clinics that just look terrible. And, at El Rio we never want that to be the case. I want these new facilities to be a warm and welcoming environment, whether our patients have great insurance or none at all.”

The groundbreaking will take place on Friday, May 31 at El Rio Congress Health Center on 839 W. Congress Street at 4 p.m. Admission is free. There will be a small reception at Mercado San Agustin across the street on 100 S. Avenida del Convento. For more information or to RSVP, call 670-3909 or visit El Rio’s website.