Health Center Celebrates Groundbreaking

Six years after the Flood of 2007 damaged the health clinic in Vernonia, the new Vernonia Health Center took another major step towards becoming a reality on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Over 100 friends, family, dignitaries and citizens joined members of the Vernonia Health Board to celebrate the official groundbreaking for construction of the new health care facility on a rainy but   joyous day.

The event was held at the West Oregon Electric Cooperative truck bays and included speeches, light snacks and the ceremonial first shovels of dirt, which was held inside, due to the hard spring rain that was falling.

The first shovels of dirt! (L to R) Vernonia Mayor Josette Mitchell, Senator Betsy Johnson, County Commissioner Tony Hyde, Heather Lewis, Health Board members Wendy Sears, Bob Wagner and Ralph Keasey

The first shovels of dirt! (L to R) Vernonia Mayor Josette Mitchell, Senator Betsy Johnson, County Commissioner Tony Hyde, Heather Lewis, Health Board members Wendy Sears, Bob Wagner and Ralph Keasey

Health Board President Erika Paleck welcomed the crowd to what she called a ”…long, and overdue occasion.”

In her opening remarks Paleck lauded the efforts of the many groups, organizations, foundations, civic entities, professionals and individual volunteers who worked together to move the project forward.  Paleck noted that, not only was the Health Board breaking ground on a new facility, they were also breaking new ground on the rural health care paradigm as well.  “The old school paradigm said bring in a big conglomerate,” said Paleck.  “In the new paradigm the Vernonia Health Board is entering into partnerships that emphasize  not just primary care but partnerships that educate, that support  mental health, that help clients navigate through the insurance mazes and in general support the whole human being.”

Vernonia Health Board President Erika Paleck with an image of the new Health Center.

Vernonia Health Board President Erika Paleck with an image of the new Health Center.


Paleck was referring in part to the new operational partnerships the Vernonia Health Board has created with Pacific University and The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County. These partners are continuing to develop a new model for delivery of health care services in a rural setting. Pacific University is supporting the Health Center with student internships, research and professional advice.   The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County has provided care givers and staff.   “Our new partners provide us an opportunity to deliver services in the community and at the same time train badly needed next generation health care providers,” said Paleck.

The groundbreaking was a culmination of an almost herculean effort by the volunteers of the  Health Board who raised over  $1 million from numerous sources in less than a year, allowing  them to begin construction and meet a FEMA deadline to move their facility out of the flood zone.   Paleck thanked the various sources of funding, including Providence, Meyer Memorial Trust, The Ford Family Foundation, The Collins Foundation and The Oregon Community Foundation.

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde noted during his remarks that he was a doubter when the Health Board first unveiled their plans to move the Health Center to a new location.  “I didn’t get their vision, I didn’t see it,” said Hyde. “It wasn’t about the building-it was never about the building.  It was about the compelling need of this community with regards to health care, now and into the future.  This is an opportunity to take our hats off to those who never lost sight of that need.”

State Senator Betsy Johnson was enthusiastic in her support for the project, saying it is just one more milestone in Vernonia’s recovery.  “We are once again celebrating the strength, grit and determination of this community and reveling in the partnerships we have created,” said Johnson.  “I have to applaud the Board for hanging in there.  Lesser folks would have given up.”

Members of the Keasey family were in attendance as the entire crowd honored and paid tribute to Carolyn Keasey, a long time Board member and past president, who passed away in October of 2013.  Mrs. Keasey was a driving force behind the project and a longtime advocate for accessible health care for the Vernonia community.  The Carolyn Keasey Fund continues to support the construction of the new building.  Mrs. Keasey’s husband Ralph, also a long time Board member, took part in the ceremonial first shovel.

The building will be constructed by Five Star Builders, who also built the WOEC headquarters across the street from the location of the new Health Center.  It was designed by Scott Edwards Architecture;  Joan Jasper is the Project Manager.  Displays at the event showed an artist’s conceptual view of the exterior of the building as well as the layout and the layout of the Rose Avenue Project site.   The Rose Avenue Project is expected to include the Vernonia Senior Center and Vernonia Cares Food Bank facilities in the future and also incorporates room for some type of retail space.

One the largest ovations during the event was reserved for Heather Lewis who was recognized for assisting the Board throughout the process of moving their facility.  Lewis also helped create the partnerships that have been so instrumental in keeping the Health Center operational.  “None of this would have happened without her,” said Paleck.  “None of this would have been possible without her foresight and her ability to see partnerships.  We all owe her very much.”

According to Lewis, who is acting as spokesperson, the Health Board had to re-evaluate their design and timeline due to a $100,000 funding shortage.   “In order to begin the project on time we have value engineered the project and will not finish some of the exam rooms,” said Lewis.  “We will continue to fundraise to complete those four rooms as well as some various equipment that we delayed in purchasing.  We did make a conscious decision to move forward and have a functioning clinic while we  continued to fundraise as opposed to waiting and not be moved before the next flood season.”

Following the ceremony, another long time Board member, Bob Wagner acknowledged the arduous process the Health Board had been through to reach this groundbreaking milestone. “I remember when the Health Board didn’t really have much to do” said Wagner. “How things have changed.”

The new Vernonia Health Center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.