Tuesday, August 06, 2013

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville a finalist for veterans home

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville has made the first cut in the battle to become the home of the state’s new veterans’ home.

A task force narrowed down the choices from 61 parcels of land down to four — Jacksonville, Russellville, Benton and Fort Chaffee.

In all four proposals, the land site will be donated to the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs to build the facility that could house about 100 veterans.

The only veterans’ home in the state is in Fayetteville. One in Little Rock was closed last year because of abuse and mismanagement.

The task force, which includes a representative from the American Legion, one from the VFW and the chairman of the Arkansas Vet Centers, will visit sites Aug. 19 and 21.

The task force, along with Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), head of the Veterans’ Home Task Force, and Cissy Rucker, director of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, will also be part of the visiting team.

The group will visit Jack-sonville on Aug. 21.

“We are very excited,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said Tuesday.

“We are the perfect fit. I feel we have an exceptional place that exceeds what the VA wants,” he added.

Amy Mattison, who heads the chamber of commerce, said Tuesday, “We are a strong military town. Look at Little Rock Air Force Base, look at the joint education center, this will complete the circle.” Sheadded, “We love our men and women in uniform.”

The criteria set by the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs for the site included requirements that it be at least 20 acres of level and, preferably, free undeveloped land.

The site must be zoned for residential or light commercial use, have utilities, easy public access and be near motels, hospitals, restaurants, shopping and public transportation.

English said the task force has to treat building the veterans’ home like a business rather than just an emotional project because legislators want it to be sustainable. The state has applied for a federal $18.1 million matching grant to construct the facility while Arkansas lawmakers have agreed to use $7.5 million in surplus funds to match the grant.

The city of Jacksonville sent in a proposal under the flag of the chamber of commerce offering the state 40 to 57 acres of land off General Samuels Road near Swift Road. The parcel is close to the air base, shopping and eateries. The Jacksonville site is mostly timberland, but at one time was home to a chemical facility. It does have utilities, and North Metro Medical Center is just a mile away. Public transportation is also nearby.

The mayor believes the city-chamber proposal donating the land is the right thing to do. “We did it in 1954 to bring in Little Rock Air Force Base and would like to have history repeat itself,” he said.

Fletcher said, “We think we’ve got the best site. It’s a very centralized location with easy access. I can’t think of a better place.”

If the city’s site is selected, the mayor said, “We’re going to do all we can to make it a first-class facility, and we’ll treat it like a gem in our community.”

The Russellville site was proposed through the Arkansas Valley Alliance for Economic Development. In the proposal, the group is offering 22.5 acres free of charge for the new facility.

The site, which is located between Sixth Street and Tyler Road, is, according to the alliance, properly zoned, has utilities, is completely above the flood plain, easily accessible and about four miles from the nearest hospital.

The Fort Chaffee site is part of Chaffee Crossing, which is land Fort Smith obtained when Fort Chaffee was closed several years ago. The home would be part of the redevelopment of 7,000 acres of the former Army site, which is managed by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. “The land would be a gift from the FCDA and is ripe for this type of development,” wrote the FCDA executive director in the proposal.

The Saline County Econo-mic Development Corporation, in its proposal, will donate 20-plus acres on the grounds of the Arkansas Health Center. “Utilizing an existing state resource such as the Arkansas Health Center property would seemingly be a prudent business decision,” Shane Broadway, the group’s chairman, said. The total site encompasses about 500 acres and, Broadway said, presents itself as a park-like setting.

The center, wherever it is built, could help create up to 100 jobs.

English hopes a final site decision will be made by the end of August, but no work would begin until the state secures the federal grant.