Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TOP STORY >> NLR choice for VA site is not final

Leader staff writer

The Arkansas Veterans Commission voted 9-3 at a meeting Tuesday morning to recommend a golf course in North Little Rock near Fort Roots as the location for a proposed new veterans’ home.

A location in Searcy was the runner-up commissioners discussed during the meeting at the state capitol.

Two sites in Jacksonville were also finalists, but they “didn’t measure up” to the others, according to commission chairman Bob Schoenborn.

He also said, “I don’t think there is any doubt Jacksonville is veteran-friendly,” and many commissioners commented that the community has a great attitude. Commissioner Tom Thomas said, “You cannot ask for people to be more patriotic in that area, Jacksonville.”

Cissy Rucker, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans’ Affairs, is tasked by the state Legislature to make the final choice of a site for the veterans’ home.

Remaining tight-lipped about the decision, she said after the meeting that all 20 sites the commission­ers considered for the $23 mil­lion, 100-bed facility are still in the running.

Rucker also said she would select the site for the home within two weeks.

One of the Jacksonville sites is 30 acres of privately-owned farmland on Military Road and the other is a 20-acre site near Little Rock Air Force Base.

The Military Road site was at the bottom of a 45-degree slope and that may mean it floods, Schoenborn said.

The commissioners have previously voiced concern about the LRAFB site being in the flight path of C-130 aircraft and requiring the acquisition of an enhanced-use lease agreement with the Department of Defense.

Rucker said, “Every site has good. Every site has negative. You have to weigh them.”
Of the North Little Rock and Searcy proposals, she said, “I think they’re both good sites. It’s just going to come down to which site I think is best for the veterans.”

The director also told commissioners, “There is no time limit on this because we don’t know when we’re going to get the money…I’ve been over these proposals so many times I could recite them. When a decision is made, just know that it is not made lightly. It will be the best for Arkansas veterans.”

The money she was referring to is $14.5 million approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the project. The state legislature has voted to chip in the rest — $7.5 million.

Rucker said federal funds might not become available until the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The state veterans’ home, which will replace a Little Rock facility that closed for mismanagement several years ago, is 19th on a federal list of priorities.

The director explained that there is enough federal money appropriated this fiscal year to pay for 18 projects.

But, she continued, “It’s not bad news. It gives us some time to work on the design” and preparing for construction. Rucker said not getting the money this fiscal year is “not a total surprise.”

Her deputy director, Charles Johnson, added, “We’re well positioned.”

Rucker also said, if a project doesn’t work out or more money is appropriated, Arkansas could receive funds for the veterans home this fiscal year.

If the site Rucker chooses doesn’t work out for any reason, she will reconsider all 20 proposals. “This (process) has been transparent, clear and fair,” the director noted.

Schoenborn, the commission’s chairman, was optimistic about the federal funds. “It was the one department not affected by sequestration. It was one department that saw an increase in funds,” he said.

Four commissioners visited the two Jacksonville sites and the North Little Rock site on Jan. 13. They had previous­ly visited Searcy’s site.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said after hearing about the commission’s vote Tuesday afternoon, “I’ll always believe that Jacksonville, when it comes to serving our military people, I can’t think of anyone who does it better. A lot of work went into putting that proposal in. It is what it is...It was out of our power to make it happen. We gave it our best shot.

“It’s not final. It certainly wasn’t a good start to getting to the final decision. It wasn’t very encouraging for the commission to not vote for (our sites),” he said.

Schoenborn said the North Little Rock golf course “looked good.” It is federally-owned land across from Fort Roots and near the veterans hospital in Little Rock.

The golf course also has a lake stocked with fish, commissioner Terry Williams Sr. pointed out.

Schoenborn said he is concerned about dealing with bureaucracy in transferring the lease on the North Little Rock site. If that holds up the process, the chairman said he would build on the Searcy site “in a heartbeat.”

Another reservation several commissioners have about the golf course is the amount of dirt work that might be needed to get the project shovel-ready.

Williams said the North Little Rock golf course offers “serenity.”

Commissioner Tom Thomas said that he is partial to Searcy’s site because he is from there, but that isn’t the only reason Searcy would be a good choice.

Thomas said, “This is the first time Arkansas will have a VA home built…What is the best way to take care of our veterans? What can you give them besides a site?”

He said Harding students who are studying several medical degrees offered by that university need internships to graduate. They could complete internships at the new home instead of traveling outside Searcy, Thomas said.

He also noted the Searcy Regional Economic Development Corp.’s offer to pay utilities for the veterans’ home for three years and the flat land at that site. There is an adjacent 15 acres the city said could eventually be offered if the home needed to expand.

Another commissioner questioned how far Searcy is from the VA hospital in Little Rock. According to Google Maps, Searcy is a 50.5-mile and 52-minute drive from Little Rock. A Greyhound bus to Little Rock stops in Searcy twice a week.

Williams added that, when the commissioners visited the two Jacksonville sites, the bus driver didn’t slow down at the Military Road location and  the group couldn’t get through the LRAFB gate to look at all of the second site because the vehicle didn’t have the right insurance,

But, Williams said, “I like Jacksonville. I’m retired military…I love the area.”