VALDOSTA -- After five years of waiting, planning and last-minute wrangling for funds, Lowndes County officials finally broke ground on renovations at the old Leila Ellis school on Wednesday.

The building, formerly an elementary school, will house expanded offices for Lowndes Associated Ministries to People -- which currently utilizes a smaller space on the property -- an adult health promotion clinic geared primarily toward persons with HIV or AIDS and two multipurpose rooms.

"Now we're looking at part of (the building) as a social service area that is centrally located," said Lowndes County Commissioner Joyce Evans. "(In the past) because we had no transportation, this area was a centralized location to serve the community. LAMP has been here some time. They know the needs. Now we can try to address those needs and provide the services."

The building was originally designed for a $1.3-million renovation, but some extras were trimmed to meet the available grant funds. Plans originally included a series of offices for local social service providers, and officials said several groups were applying for grants that could restore those options before the renovations are completed in eight months.

The Board of Commissioners donated the building, maintenance and $100,000 to the project, and the county also received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant and a $330,000 Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS grant for the project.

The Commission awarded a bid of $732,900 for the renovations, but project costs grew due to the expense of asbestos and lead-based paint abatement.

The assembled group praised the efforts of the County Commission and social service providers for the cooperative effort in securing the location and money for a much-needed facility.

"I wish I could say that we don't need this," County Commission Chairman Rod Casey said, gesturing toward the structure. "I wish I could say that we don't have people in our society who need this, but on the other hand, I'm glad I can say that we have a place like this for them."

The health clinic will not be restricted to AIDS patients, instead treating a variety of infectious disease needs for patients within a 10-county area. The facility will also provide basic clinic services to individuals at the New Horizons shelter, community soup kitchen, community residents and homeless individuals.

Brenda Mims, infectious disease coordinator with the Georgia South Health District, said the renovations would allow the group to bring both clinical and administrative assistance to one location -- rather than being spread across town in different offices.

"This will allow us to be together with all of our staff members," she said. "All of our staff can be in the same location so if a client has an administrative need or a housing need, they won't have to go to separate locations. It will all be under one roof, one-stop shopping."

The clinic will also provide housing assistance, transportation, counseling and support to AIDS patients, while also treating other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, meningitis, any sexually transmitted disease or even the West Nile Virus, should cases appear.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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