LUMBERTON — Officials with the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine were on the mark in September when they announced that the groundbreaking for the Robeson County Community Service Learning Center would be coming soon.
Site preparation began on Wednesday with workers erecting fencing to prevent erosion.
The 7,700-square-foot center is being built in front of the Pinecrest Country Club, near the county Department of Social Services on N.C. 711 and adjacent to the Pinecrest Village subdivision. The 2.5 acres of land was donated to the university by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners last year.
The center, where dental students from ECU will be trained, will also offer dental care to residents in Robeson and surrounding rural counties at bargain prices or for free.
“We need to get this erosion fencing up before anything else can be done,” said Jerry Taylor, an employee with Benson Construction Inc. of Lumberton, the company hired for the project. “We should be finished putting up the fence by tomorrow (Thursday).”
According to Taylor, Benson will be responsible for several parts of the project, including putting in water and sewer and constructing the pad for the building.
Taylor said that within “another week” there should be 10 to 15 Benson employees working on the site at any given time.
The center, expected to be operating in the fall of 2014, is the seventh to be announced by the university. It is one of 10 centers that the ECU dental school will eventually open in rural areas across the state.
ECU is providing the community-based sites as a means for fourth-year dental students and post-graduate residents to learn and sharpen their skills.
The center being constructed in Robeson County is part of a strategy designed by the university to address the shortage of dentists in rural areas of the state. Centers are already operating in Ahoskie and Elizabeth City. Four other clinics — in Lillington, Sylva, Spruce Pine and Davidson County — are under construction and expected to open next year.
When in Lumberton on Sept. 16, Greg Chadwick, dean of ECU’s School of Dental Medicine, said that the center will have a significant impact not only on the dental care of residents in Robeson and surrounding counties, but will boost the local economy. He said it will cost about $3.6 million to construct the school, with 10 employees, including hygienists, dental assistants and office staff, being hired locally.
ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, also in Lumberton in September, said that the Robeson County center, as well as the other centers being built in rural areas across the state, is addressing needs that have not previously been met.
“We have more than 50 counties out of the state’s 100 counties that have fewer dentists than federal standards,” told about 60 people gathered for the official announcement that construction of the center would soon begin.
Bill Smith, Robeson C0unty’s health director, said Wednesday that he is pleased to see that construction of the center is finally getting under way.
“This has been a long time coming,” he said. “The process has been slow, but it now appears it is speeding up.”
Smith previously said that the state’s Association of Local Health Directors in the early 1990s recognized the looming shortage of dentists, especially in rural areas, and made it a legislative priority.
“It went nowhere, but we weren’t content with just having one or two or three more slots added to those (at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) because it wouldn’t meet our needs,” he said.
Local proponents hope that the ECU clinic will help fill a gap in dental services following the closing of the county Health Department’s dental clinic four months ago. The clinic was closed because it was losing too much money.