Friday, August 23, 2013

TOP STORY >> Veterans site pitched to state

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville officials in a presentation Wednesday stressed that their proposed site for a new state veterans’ home is versatile and would have the full support of a community dedicated to those who serve.

Former Rep. Mike Wilson, said, “No one in this state, no one in this country, supports the armed forces like we do. We’re going to keep doing it. We believe that the best site is here.”

The city is offering, free of charge, 57 acres of land with utilities off General Samuels Road near Swift Road for the $25 million facility.

Officials say it is mostly flat, undeveloped timberland that could easily accommodate a cottage-style, branch/wing-style or pod-style veterans home with a pond.

But the Jacksonville site is no longer up against just three other locations — in Benton, Fort Smith and Russellville — that were chosen from 61 proposals submitted to a 22-member task force led by state Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock).

Another group, the 15- member Arkansas Veterans Commission, has looked at a site in Searcy even though that city turned in its proposal to the task force weeks after a June deadline.

About Jacksonville’s chances of being selected, the senator said, “All (the sites) have really good things. It’s going to be a very difficult decision...There is no perfect site.”

The task force hopes to submit its recommendation by the end of the month.

Cissy Rucker, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, will have the final say about which site is selected for the project that could house about 100 veterans and create at least that many jobs.

Rucker said on Wednesday that she is willing to look at other proposals submitted after the June deadline. She added that proposals from two or three other cities that were considered also came in late.

Rucker explained, “We need to give this as wide of a look as we can.”

Commission chairman Tom Thomas, a Searcy native, said his group and the task force are not working against each other.

In fact, Thomas is a member of English’s task force and helped it select Jacksonville as one of the top four sites.

He explained that the commission is advising Rucker under Act 165, which the senator helped write.

“The ultimate goal of both (groups) is to pick a facility that is the best facility and site that we can get. I sometimes get emotional when I think of things we should do for our veterans that we’re not,” Thomas said.

The commission, unlike the task force, wasn’t formed to recommend sites for the veterans’ home. It was created after World War II, Thomas noted.

Officials don’t know yet whether they will receive the $18.1 million federal matching grant the state applied for to construct the facility, he continued. Arkansas lawmakers have agreed to use $7.5 million in surplus funds to match the grant. Thomas said a letter about the grant might not arrive until December or January.

He explained that a lot of bureaucracy, including federal approvals, would slow the project down.

But, Thomas noted, he was impressed with both Searcy’s and Jacksonville’s presentations.

“I think Jacksonville has got a great site. There is no doubt about it that Jacksonville is veteran-oriented,” he said.

State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) stood up at the end of the presentation to agree. The senator noted that he has traveled to many places all over the state.

“There is not another community in the state that its heartbeat is the military,” Williams said.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “Our arms are long enough to reach out for what we would consider the gem of our community.”

Third-generation Jackson-ville realtor Daniel Gray said, “The biggest asset is the proximity to Little Rock Air Force Base and the history of Jacksonville.”

That history includes the community raising millions of dollars so it could donate the land to the Air Force for the base in 1954 and the city providing $5 million to build the $14 million LRAFB Education Center at the intersection of Hwy. 67/167 and Vandenburg Boulevard.

Gray added that Jacksonville has three high schools, the military history museum, many churches and numerous veterans’ organizations. The community also helped establish the Flightline Charter Academy on the base.

Cindy Stafford, the chief executive officer for North Metro Medical Center, pointed out that the level-four trauma hospital is just over a mile from the proposed site. Level four means North Metro has demonstrated the ability to provide advanced trauma life support.

The center also offers a long-term acute care facility, Stafford said.

Larry Wilson, president of his family’s Jacksonville-based First Arkansas Bank and Trust, said the veterans home “is a big deal and many veterans will benefit from it for years.”

He noted that 32,000 veterans — the largest population in Arkansas — live in Pulaski County.

Larry Wilson said, “If you’re going to build a veterans’ home, why not have it where the veterans are?...When you focus on what is best for veterans, this site and its amenities makes your recommendation for this site easier. All we ask is do what’s best for the veterans.”

Gray wanted to clarify that the proposed site was never part of the Vertac Chemical Corp. property on the nearby Marshall Road.

The proposal sent to the task force states that there was once a chemical plant on the site.

In 1979, the Environ-mental Protection Agency found that the land owned by Vertac was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic waste.

The property was cleaned up in 1998 with $150 million from the federal Superfund program.

English said the veterans’ home would not be used as a drug or alcohol rehabilitation center like Fort Roots in North Little Rock.

Jacksonville’s proposal meets the task force’s criteria that the site be at least 20 acres of level land zoned for residential or light commercial use, have utilities, easy public access and be near motels, hospitals, restaurants, shopping and public transportation. The task force also prefers a site that is undeveloped and free.

The Jacksonville parcel is zoned for light commercial use. The Central Arkansas Transit System bus stop is about a block away and could be moved closer, officials said at the presentation.