Friday, December 20, 2013

TOP STORY >> Director: All VA sites still in play

Leader staff writer

All 20 proposed sites are still in play for the new $22 million veterans’ home.

Even through the Arkansas Veterans’ Home Commission, on Tuesday, narrowed the 20 proposals down to three cities — Jacksonville, North Little Rock and Searcy — Cissy Rucker, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, has the final say.

Mayor Gary Fletcher, who attended the commission meeting, is excited that Jacksonville was among the top sites chosen. “All they have to do is come out and visit the community and they’ll see what we see, that, when it comes to our military, Jacksonville is a very special place,” he said.

On Friday, Rucker said that all sites were still being considered by the Veterans’ Affairs Department. Rucker originally said she thought she would have a decision made by theend of the year, but now she says, “I have no idea, but hope it can still be by the end of the year.”

The panel, in recommending the three cities, kept both of Jacksonville’s proposed sites in the mix.

But Rucker expressed concerns with one of the city’s sites, along with the North Little Rock selection. “For us to use one of the Jacksonville sites, land has to be obtained from the Department of Defense, and, in North Little Rock, it has to be obtained from the VA. We need to know how laborious of a process that will be,” she said.

Two proposed sites in Jacksonville were recommended. One is 30 acres of privately-owned farmland on Military Road and the other is a 20-acre site near Little Rock Air Force Base. Commissioners expressed some reservations about the site near the base when informed that it was in the flight path of C-130 aircraft.

The North Little Rock location is located near Fort Roots Veterans Administration Medical Center on what is now the nine-hole Emerald Park Golf Course.

The Searcy location is 20 acres of privately-owned land near Booth and Pioneer roads. “It is west of the airport and a nice flat area,” Rucker said.

All three cities were in or near the top three of each of the 15 commissioners’ lists of recommendations.

The new facility would house between 100 and 150 veterans and bring about 100 jobs to the area it is located in.

Federal regulations allow the state to have about 650 beds for veterans, but the state only has about 80 at one home in Fayetteville. A veterans’ facility in Little Rock was closed about two years ago because of mismanagement and financial fraud.

Rucker said five firms have been selected as finalists to design the new veterans’ home. The five will be interviewed by Rucker and three others on a selection panel in mid-January.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has approved $14.5 million for the project, and the state Legislature voted to chip in an additional $7.5 million.

The two sites in Jacksonville are on North First Street and Military Road.

The site on Military Road is 30 acres of agricultural land, Jacksonville chamber director Amy Mattison said.

She said the 20-acre property on North First Street is owned by the Air Force.

Both sites have utilities.

The Military Road site would be donated if chosen for the project. The North First Street site would be offered through the enhanced-use lease program, which is more time-consuming than donating a site, Mattison said.

An enhanced-use lease is a lease between the Air Force and a public or private interest willing to pay at least fair market rental value or in-kind consideration for the use of a base’s non-excess real property, according to an article on the Air Force’s website. It also states that the lease is typically for 25 to 50 years.

Earlier in the year, the Veterans’ Affairs Department asked for proposals and Jacksonville was one of the top four finalists out of 61 with a 57-acre site of General Samuels Road near Swift Road.

But all the proposals were tossed after it was determined the department needed to include additional requirements on the sites. The new requirements disqualified the city’s first offering.