Government

Linn County breaks ground on 'statement' public health and youth services building

Sarah Beth Harris (left) and David Harris (center), children of Percy and Lileah Harris, talk with friends and family at
Sarah Beth Harris (left) and David Harris (center), children of Percy and Lileah Harris, talk with friends and family at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health building in Cedar Rapids on Friday, May 18, 2018. The building is named in honor of the family of Cedar Rapids’ first African American doctor. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Philip L. Harris stood on the grass-covered plot where work is set to begin Monday on the public health and youth development services building that will bear the name of his parents.

Local elected officials, community members and more than one dozen members of the Harris family gathered Friday on the plot of county-owned land near the corner of 10th Avenue SE and Seventh Street SE to celebrate the groundbreaking for the $28.1 million Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health and Youth Development Services building.

To exemplify the commitment his parents — who were recognized by many Friday as leaving lasting impacts on public health, education and civil rights — made to their community, Philip Harris read from a letter his father wrote to his mother on June 25, 1956. At the time, the aspiring physician was eying Iowa as the future home for his family, Philip said.

“Honey, as things now stand, Cedar Rapids is where I will probably try to start my practice. I guess too much of Iowa is in me to really want to get away from it,” Philip read from the letter. “Tell me how you feel about this, Cedar Rapids is really a beautiful city.”

The Harris family arrived in Cedar Rapids the following year for Percy Harris’s internship with St. Luke’s Hospital, becoming the city’s first black physician.

Despite facing their share of discrimination — including the 1961 vote among the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church congregation regarding whether to sell a Bever Avenue SE lot to the Harris family — Philip said his parents were never bitter and remained committed to the community.

Percy Harris, who eventually became medical staff president at St. Luke’s Hospital, was appointed as the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents in 1977.

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Lileah Harris, who grew up north of Waterloo, was a classical pianist, singer, poet and painter and always was learning. She finished her college degree, in Russian, at the University of Iowa at age 62.

Percy Harris died last year at age 89. Lileah Harris died three years earlier, at age 83.

“While their journey on this earth has come to an end, their legacy of service and good citizenship will live on forever on this sacred ground,” Supervisor Stacey Walker said. “We are breaking new ground in an old neighborhood, once reserved for the second class.”

When complete near the end of 2019, the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health and Youth Development Services building will be a “statement project” for the community, officials said. The 63,000-square-foot facility will house county public health services, youth development programs and classrooms and public space for residents.

“This development center will continue to be a pinnacle for early childhood development for ages to come,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said.

While most seem to agree with the building and its purpose, the county’s use of a lease-purchase agreement to secure a local developer for the roughly $28.1 million facility not only raised concerns among builder organizations, but led Iowa legislators to change state law for any future projects.

Critics of the county’s use of a lease-purchase agreement say it sidestepped state competitive bidding rules.

Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this year signed into law a bill that requires public bodies — cities, counties and state government, including the Board of Regents — to go through a competitive bidding process before awarding contracts for public projects, including lease-purchase arrangements.

Meanwhile, county officials argued the process allowed for the best use of taxpayer dollars. A process called value engineering, which included adjustments to facility features and building materials, brought the lump sum price down from an original estimate of $31.1 million to about $28.6 million.

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Furnishings, consulting fees and miscellaneous costs are estimated to cost an additional $3.1 million.

“Today also celebrates the many, many months spent researching, planning and designing the best possible use for this new space,” Supervisor John Harris said Friday.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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