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Town Meeting advances new health center in Amherst

AMHERST — Town Meeting’s decision to pay for renovations to the East Street School building paves the way for Hilltown Community Health Center to move forward with plans to open a satellite health center in downtown Amherst.

“This is kind of a milestone in having an action plan,” Town Manager John Musante said on Tuesday, a day after Town Meeting members agreed to borrow $700,000 to pay for the work that should allow the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education to move out of the Bangs Center on Boltwood Walk by September 2015. That would clear the way for the health center to take its place.

“My intent is to have LSSE move to East Street when it’s ready,” Musante said.

LSSE’s offices, in the lower level of the Bangs Center, would then be fully converted into the community health center that will provide care for underserved populations and be a partner to others groups using the Bangs Center, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Hampshire County and the Center for New Americans.

Edward Sayer, Hilltown’s executive director who has been in discussions with town officials for several months about leasing the Bangs space, said he appreciates the Town Meeting action.

“We were thrilled with the vote,” said Sayer, describing it as clearing one of two hurdles before Hilltown’s board of directors takes a formal vote to negotiate a lease with the town.

The other obstacle, Sayer said, is figuring out how to raise the $750,000 cost of renovating the Bangs space. Hilltown will work with a consultant to develop a plan. That could happen within the next few weeks, Sayer said.

Sayer said Hilltown has tentatively identified both a physician and a nurse practitioner to work in the new center.

The timing for the opening remains uncertain, but Hilltown would not have to wait for LSSE to vacate entirely, Sayer said. “We can start with medical and portable dental in a small space,” he added.

The Amherst health center would be supported through a combination of federal funds and insurance reimbursements.

LSSE’s new site will be a prime location with bus service every 15 minutes and close proximity to Fort River School, Musante said. The renovations will include installing a lift, handicapped bathrooms and an exterior ramp, and replacing the roof.

Musante said this is a good short-term option for the LSSE and puts life back into the former school.

“I’ve made it clear to staff and the LSSE Commission that I don’t envision that as a permanent site for LSSE,” Musante said.

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