Remains Empty After Public Funds Spent
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA – It has the appearance of a fortress built to last a millennium. It was intended to be a much needed health clinic. For two years a Riverside County building has sat abandoned as officials continue to seek a purpose to justify its existence.
Riverside County Supervisors were informed last month they face a deficit that could reach $102 million. A new County building located in Desert Hot Springs sits empty. It cost $14 million to build.
Construction fence blocks access. But even if those who were once to be served by the building were able to get inside, they would find only an empty shell.
Riverside County purchased the 7 acres of land where the building sits in August of 2007 and shortly thereafter held a ground breaking ceremony heralding what was advertised to become a new county medical clinic that would spare Coachella Valley residents a 100 mile round trip to the nearest County facility located in Moreno Valley.
For those without health insurance and that draw on County health services the prospect of health care in the area was a God send. They are poor and rely on public transit or a friend to get them to their medical appointments.
It has been six years since the first celebratory assembly of ground breaking government officials announced that the promise of health care was here. The date was October 29, 2007.
The two private medical practioners in the city of Desert Hot Springs have done what they could do to help. They spared some patients the trip to Moreno Valley. But those medical practioners are also left wondering when the building will open.
A low-income medical provider has moved into the city in the last two years. The Borrego Health Clinic is a relief for those with MediCal and other low income approved medical coverage. Borrego Health Foundation is building a second facility.
Borrego’s clinic serves only some of the medical needs. The community previously had just two doctors for its 25,000 residents. But as Borrego officials explained, they are not a replacement for a County facility. They are not able to accept patients that do not have a means to pay. Even as a non-profit, Borrego has bills to pay.
That’s the same problem for the private practioners that have been providing services. There is only so much they can offer before they find their bottom line in trouble.
The 20,000 sq ft County building was intended to fill that medical need. Today it suffers its own ill health. Vandalism is a constant problem. An empty building attracts broken windows. The construction trailer left on site attracts graffiti. And once fresh landscaping has fallen into neglect with plants looking ill.
Calls to several County officials produced only more uncertainty about when the building will open and what it will be used for.
“The County building was intended to be a health clinic,” said Tom Freeman, a County official knowledgeable about the project who serves as Commissioner, Office of Foreign Trade-Economic Development Administration for County of Riverside
Med Clinic Announced in 2007
Riverside County purchased the seven acres of land on Palm Drive adjacent to the Vons shopping center for $7.2 million from land speculator Zand Farshid, County records show.
It was immediately after that purchase and with great fanfare that everyone welcomed the announcement – that finally – the city would have a local health clinic.
So extravagant was the announcing event held October just before a council council election, that the County popped for the expense of a circus tent to shelter the hundred plus dignitaries and public in attendance. A three-piece string was hired to provide music for the festivities that included a generous spread of foods and beverages provided by a Temecula company.
The grand announcement by Supervisor Marion Ashely in 2007 was met with cheers and appreciative applause. Speeches were made by all levels of civic leaders and interested community members. The symbolic shovel of dirt was finally tossed and the city felt a broad sense of relief that doctors were on their way.
The solution of a medical clinic was not enough to keep two council members in office. They lost the election next month.
Then came the wait for plans to be drawn and for the building to be built. One year went by, then another. The vacant lot sat empty without a health clinic.
Residents and those that would be served by the clinic began to ask questions, as did the medical providers. Nearly two more years would pass until November 10, 2010 that yet another groundbreaking event would be held.
Again, there was great fanfare as more shovels of dirt were thrown by city and county officials promising that a medical facility would soon be opening. More speeches and promises were made, again just before an election, and the public began to believe once again that a community health clinic was on the near horizon.
Perhaps it was simply the fault of the sign company – or just more neglect by the County – but when the identifying construction sign was posted it identified the building as the Desert Springs Family Care Center. They couldn’t even identify the city correctly, calling it Desert Springs instead of Desert Hot Springs. No one bothered to fix it.
Meanwhile another problem surfaced that caught the attention of the public. The city was taking heat for negotiating a 2008 deal for the city to purchased a property for $1.4 million and that deal went south.
Property located at 66675 Pierson Boulevard was purchased for use as a community center. That deal went flat when it was discovered the building was unsafe and had to be torn down.
The city manager then came up with another idea. He announced the vacant property was going to be a fire station and he gave away $25,000 for a feasibility study to justify the concept. That plan also went nowhere, leaving the city manager hoping the public would forget the loss of the $25,000.
This then left the city again stuck with that lingering embarrassment. The $1.4 million in public money had been spent for no public benefit. Sometime in 2010 Daniels hatched yet another plan; looking for an organization to operate a health clinic on the site.
That’s when Borrego Springs Health Care entered the picture. The city of Desert Hot Springs fit their demographics of service and Daniels found the solution to cover the $1.4 million ground with a health clinic.
Following that, Borrego applied for and received a federal grant of about $3 million to establish a health clinic in the city. According to the federal employee in Washington D.C. responsible for managing the grant program, although Borrego could have applied to build or outfit a new building, instead Borrego chose to apply for exclusive rehab funding.
This would become the sticking point; irrevocably tying the federal funding to the Jewish Temple and making it impossible to use the County building already under construction.
This became the foundation of a convenient cover-up, although a belated justification, for the city purchasing the old Jewish Temple property for $1.4 million and selling it to Borrego for $291,000.
Running parallel to all this, back in 2010 Borrego had started another project in the city; remodeling a building for use as a health clinic on the corner of Desert View and Palm, in the former location of Tommy’s Grill.
At a cost of over a quarter million dollars for tenant improvements, that medical clinic opened its doors in 2010 with 1.5 doctors and 10 new exam rooms.
Repeatedly, at council meetings and other public events at that time the official word from Daniels was that a new County health clinic would also soon be opening at the County property while never mentioning any any consideration of an alternative use for the Jewish Temple property owned by the city.
Meanwhile the sour deal of the $1.4 million spent on purchasing the Jewish Temple was slowly disappearing off the radar of public concern.
That Old Jewish Temple Building
Borrego was then applying for a multi-million dollar federal grant for facilities and equipment to operate a clinic in the city.
Daniels, as the manager of the city, was communicating with both Borrego and Riverside County.
Instead of applying for the federal funding to operate in an existing building, such as the County building, Borrego applied to rehabilitate an existing building. Conveniently, Daniels reported that the only building in the city capable of meeting the needs of Borrego was the former Jewish Temple.
Silently the community waited; then watched the County building be built. First came the requisite construction fencing, then the job site super’s trailer. The $6,337,000 spent on construction inched forward block by block during 2010 and 2011 along with reassuring promises from Daniels that a County medical clinic would soon be occupying the building.
Brick by brick expectations rose. With the assembly of every masonry block the hopes and prayers for medical care for an entire community were invested in the building that held the promise of urgently needed local medical care.
After building construction was completed in July of 2012 the job site superintendent packed it up and left, leaving little behind.
It didn’t take long for graffiti to start appearing on the construction superintendent’s construction trailer. Then the fabric on the construction fencing ripped and blew into the roadway. Then water to the landscaping was turned off.
Recently the County hired a 24-hour security company to camp out on-site in a motor home to deter further problems.
Last year Daniels began making announcements that the University of Riverside Medical School would be operating a medical clinic in the County building. So far there are no signed contracts.
With $14 million in public funds invested, the official line from Riverside County officials describing the future of this building is that “they are pursuing other health related uses.”
Meanwhile, windows remain broken and landscape dying until someone figures out what to do with the building that once held so much promise to the community.
For over 40 years Dean has been published in a variety of small newspapers and magazines. As publisher he founded an alternative city weekly newspaper in 2008 and published over 200 uninterrupted issues over 4 years to over 20,000 readers via 800 locations (and online) before selling the business.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader.
In 2014 he was appointed Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs, California.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.