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Health center is rising on Mercy site

(ran South, East, Beach, Seminole editions)

It seemed to take forever, but bustle has returned to the old Mercy Hospital site.

The Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, a few months past its groundbreaking, is powering out of the ground, filling a gaping cavity along 22nd Street S.

The 22,000-square-foot project will bring the widest array of medical services to its neighborhood since Mercy closed in 1966. The center, 1344 22nd St. S, is expected to open in December.

Frank Kempeneer, Bandes Construction's supervisor for the project, wants to knock wood about the finish date.

"Last (month) was hell on me with five days of rain," Kempeneer said.

But the Belgian-born, 50-year construction veteran also worked the Center for Achievement job three blocks north. Its grand opening was last month. That job, Kempeneer said, came in 71 days ahead of schedule.

Early this week, the health center's walls were well up. Roof support systems will go in soon. Kempeneer said he expects the roof to be on in two weeks.

He showed off plans for the interior, which will be a complex of small rooms and offices. Among the services _ in addition to basic health care _ will be dentistry, radiology, ultrasound and behavioral health. There will be obstetrics and pediatrics sections and a pharmacy. Two or three offices for midwives are included.

After serving African-Americans for 43 years during the segregation era, Mercy closed in 1966 and slid into an ever drowsier existence.

A few social service offices came and went. Activity died, and the city named the abandoned site historic in 1994. Eventually, all that remained was one of the original hospital's battered buildings.

The old structure is getting special attention _ and an updating.

"What I got to do, when I walk away from it, it's got to be identical to the old one," Kempeneer said.

Concrete floors will replace wood. Otherwise, the shape and design will remain true to the original, he said.

Meanwhile, a section between the old building and the new center will be built as a small museum to house Mercy Hospital memorabilia.

Viewed as a Jim Crow relic when it closed, Mercy has attained an aura of nostalgia. It also has become a symbol of African-American perseverance in a segregated society.

Named for the late nurse and educator who died in 1978, the health center is viewed as a vitally needed amenity in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods.

It also is expected to be a catalyst for revival efforts along 22nd Street S.

"I think in addition to providing needed health care, it will bring much needed traffic to 22nd Street, which means the businesses along 22nd Street can benefit, both from the traffic and the clientele," said Goliath Davis, deputy mayor for Midtown.

A $3.75-million federal grant financed most of the project. The city has kicked in another $400,000. The center's annual operating budget of $2-million will be supported by federal money.

Since 1985, the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center has worked out of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, 1310 22nd Ave. S.

Clarke was a St. Petersburg native who worked most of her life to improve living conditions for poor people. She was the first black person to receive a doctorate from the University of Florida.