WATERVILLE — A few years ago, Karen Cole found herself with about $350 in dental repair work she needed done but couldn’t afford when a friend helped her connect with the Waterville Community Dental Center.

“If a dentist says, ‘You need $1,000 in work,’ that’s not an option for me,” said Cole, 66, a MaineCare recipient with multiple sclerosis. “The center is great at helping you save what you have and fix what you need. I know they’ve done that for me, and it’s been awesome.”

The dental center, located in The Center downtown, has been working to help low-income and uninsured patients for the last 18 years.

But with a new $18 to $20 million renovation planned to transform the building into an arts and film hub, the dental center was notified in February it will have to move out of the space it has been renting from arts organization Waterville Creates! by December.

“It’s a huge challenge to have to relocate, but we’re also looking at it as providing us with some great opportunities,” said Barbara Covey, president of the board of the dental center, which is run by the nonprofit group Kennebec Valley Dental Coalition.

The group has already identified a new location in Oakland’s First Park business park, a former occupational and physical therapy office that offers the advantage of already being set up for patient care.

But in order to make the move the center is trying to raise almost $1.2 million to fund the purchase of the new space and make renovations that will be needed to transform it into a dental office.

The purchase of the building will cost $380,000, and while the dental center has raised about $470,000 so far in grants and pledges, they are also facing other costs to renovate and equip the new space to modern standards.

About 75 percent of the clinic’s patients are MaineCare recipients, while another 12 percent receive reduced dental fees and 13 percent are insured or privately pay for services.

Renovations on the building are expected to cost an estimated $430,000 while upgrades to their equipment, some of which dates to the center’s origins 18 years ago, are expected to cost around $270,000.

Covey, an emergency room physician, and others said the cost will be well worth it and are looking to the community to help.

“I think some people don’t really understand it, but when you look it in the face every day, you really understand,” she said. “In the emergency room, day after day, many of the things we see happening are because of poor oral health.”

Somerset County, where many of the clinic’s patients come from, has the worst ratio of dentists per resident in the state and also the highest rate of childhood poverty, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in public health.

While Kennebec County fares better, the foundation still says 18 percent of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty in the county.

According to the center, about 75 percent of their patients are children who otherwise would not have access to preventative dental care.

“We’re trying to create good health habits over time, and I know from what parents have said they’re very grateful,” Covey said. “They are parents who have tried to get their kids care in various areas, and they’ve had difficulty doing so.”

Jessica Pelotte, practice manager at the center, said they also treat adults who might otherwise be in the emergency room with severe dental problems.

“They are sort of desperate when they call us because they’ve called six to 10 other places that can’t get them in and some of them just can’t wait that long,” she said. “Our patients are going to work everyday suffering, and they’re at the breaking point when they call us.”

With the move, the center is planning to also start serving as a community teaching site for the University of New England College of Dental Medicine.

The partnership would allow the center to host a dental student each semester and hopefully, according to Covey, encourage more dentists to live and work permanently in the area.

After the repairs she needed a few years ago, Cole said she started going to the dental center regularly for cleanings which she has to pay for out-of-pocket since MaineCare doesn’t cover preventative dental care for adults, but which she said have helped stop further dental or general health issues for her.

“Health care costs are something everyone is facing now,” she said. “If you don’t have access to preventative care, you will end up with a big issue. Everyone knows how expensive the dentist can be so I’m very lucky to be with them. I just hope they can continue and more people can have access to the care.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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