COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As a child growing up on the Near East Side, Dr. Joshua Joseph remembers attending community meetings at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library with his mother. 

Formerly an eastern outpost of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the building at 1600 E. Long Street with its blue gazebo now stands empty after the library moved into a new building down the street in 2018. Soon, it will reopen its doors to Near East Side residents – although not as a library.

Last week, Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees approved a $5.1 million renovation of the former library into a Healthy Community Center with Joseph, an endocrinologist and researcher at the Wexner Medical Center, as its medical director. The center will not be a clinical space – rather, Joseph said it will be a wellness-focused supplement to health care aimed at mitigating health disparities for low-income and marginalized residents.

A 2004 report by the Columbus Department of Health found that in 2000, more than a third of Near East Side households lived below the poverty level – more than three times the rate of Franklin County. A historically Black community, the city found that the Near East Side lacked critical resources nearby, such as primary care services, grocery stores and reliable public transportation.

Near East Side residents had higher blood pressure and cholesterol, were more likely to smoke, and were less than half as likely to regularly exercise compared to Franklin County residents in 2000, according to the report. They were also more than twice as likely to report being concerned about having enough food to feed themselves or their family in the past month.

With programming developed through years of community input, Joseph said the center will focus on nutrition, physical activity, financial literacy and workforce development. The building will be equipped with a demonstration kitchen for hands-on cooking lessons, a café with nutritious food options – something Joseph said is lacking in the area – and rooms for community members, organizations and businesses to use as gathering and event spaces.

The center’s guiding principle, Joseph said, will be community involvement: From its programs to its location, the idea for the center was developed with the needs and wants of Near East Side residents in mind. Now, in the implementation of those plans, Joseph said making sure the center blends seamlessly with the neighborhood will be the utmost priority.

“We really want to be a part of the ecosystem and fabric of the Near East Side – not just a standalone center,” Joseph said. 

The center will be close to the YMCA and Ohio State East Hospital – two major providers of health and wellness care in the area – and will maintain program partnerships with those health centers, Joseph said. He also looked to another neighbor, East High School, as a possible target of community engagement through afterschool programs.

Construction on the Healthy Community Center will begin in the spring, with the center’s opening slated for January 2024. But Joseph said that based on previous feedback from residents, the center will offer educational programs and outreach as soon as possible, long before it opens its doors to the public.

“The Healthy Community Center really has to be for the community, by the community, about the community,” Joseph said.

The Wexner Medical Center will host a community session about the new center at 5:30 p.m. March 6 in the Wallace Auditorium in OSU East. You can learn more about the community center here.