Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TOP STORY >> Veterans-home site never chemical plant

Leader staff writer

The land that Jacksonville is offering for a state veterans’ home has never been the site for a chemical plant as erroneously described by a chamber of commerce official in a presentation to the veterans task force that will choose the home’s location.

There are at least two rumors circulating about the drive to get Jacksonville’s site selected for the new $25 million state veterans’ home. One is that the home will be used for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and the other that it was used as a chemical plant. Both are wrong.

The most damaging rumor is that Vertac Chemical Corp. owned the 57 acres off General Samuels Road near Swift Road that Jacksonville is offering to donate for the project.

“It’s not, never has been and therefore there’s no need to talk about it. It’s just pouring gas on something there’s no fire on,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said.

The rumor sprang from the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce’s proposal, listing “chemical facility” as a previous use of the property.

Chamber director Amy Mattison said Pulaski Industrial Park owned the land.

The for-profit corporation filed its last paperwork with the secretary of state’s office in 1963. Kenneth Pat Wilson, founder of First Arkansas Bank and Trust, was president of the corporation.

The mayor said Pulaski Industrial Park was a group of business people who sought to establish an industrial park in Jacksonville. An industrial park is an area zoned and planned for the purpose of industrial development.

When asked whether there ever was a chemical plant on the proposed site, Mattison said her research so far has shown, “There was not one there…There was never anything on there.”

She said, “I can’t answer that,” when asked why chemical facility was listed as a previous use on the proposal that bears her signature on the first of its 13 pages.

Mattison said the chamber is working to retrieve a title search through the county assessor’s office. The search will provide a more detailed history of the property.

In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency found that Vertac’s land on Marshall Road was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic waste. The property was cleaned up in 1998 with $150 million from the federal Superfund program.

The proposed site for the veterans’ home is mostly flat, undeveloped timberland. It shares a border with the Vertac site, but was not owned by the company, Mattison said. It was not a contaminated site.

A second rumor is that the veterans’ home will be a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center like Fort Roots in North Little Rock.

State Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) said that’s not true. It will be a nursing home-type facility, she noted last week.

English did not return calls about whether having “chemical facility” on the city’s proposal would affect its chances of being selected.

Jacksonville’s proposal says that the veterans’ home could serve up to 150 veterans as a nursing home or an assisted living facility that could provide dementia care, day care and/or hospice care.

The state has applied for an $18.1 million federal matching grant to construct the facility. Arkansas lawmakers have agreed to use $7.5 million in surplus funds to match the grant.

Jacksonville’s proposed site, which is zoned for light commercial use, is about a mile from the front gate of Little Rock Air Force Base.

It has electricity, a telephone line, the ability to connect to high-speed Internet, water, sewer and gas lines.

A phase I environmental study has been completed, and the proposal includes a letter from the mayor.

The mayor wrote that the site would be shovel ready if Jacksonville were selected for the project.

The proposed site is just two miles north of Hwy. 67/167 and five miles from Hwy. 440. The city is 15 miles north of Hwys. 40 and 30.

North Metro Medical Center is 1.19 miles south. Jacksonville Medical Clinic is one block north of the hospital. The clinic has 11 primary care physicians.

The Jacksonville Fire Department’s Central Station is 2.2 miles south.

The John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital is 18.1 miles south.

There is a Central Arkansas Transit bus stop about a block away and could be nearer.

City officials say the site meets all of the state’s criteria and could easily accommodate a cottage-style, branch/wing-style or pod-style veterans’ home with a pond.

Four other sites — in Benton, Fort Smith, Russellville and Searcy — are being considered.

The veterans’ home would create at least 100 jobs, so competition for the project is fierce.

A 22-member task force led by English and formed by the state legislature this year selected the sites in Jacksonville, Benton, Fort Smith and Russellville as the best of 61 proposals the group received.

Another group, the Arkansas Veterans Commission, announced last week that it would be looking at Searcy’s site.

Searcy turned in a proposal weeks after a June deadline set by the task force.

The 15-member commission, unlike the task force, was created after World War II.

The commission and the task force are making recommendations to Cissy Rucker, the state Department of Veterans Affairs director. She will have the final say on which site is selected.

Rucker has said she would look at other sites proposed between now and when she makes the final decision.