Crowds of local veterans gathered at the Clifton Center for two public meetings on May 11 to share their opinions on a proposed new Veterans Affairs medical center.
VA representatives presented three options to the veterans: build a new medical center on one of three suburban “greenfield” sites, build a center downtown or renovate and expand the existing Robley Rex VA Medical Center on Zorn Avenue.
Each veteran had three minutes to state his or her opinion regarding the proposals, and nearly all spoke in opposition to building a new center downtown near the University of Louisville Medical Center.
“I’d like to leave you with one last thought about the downtown location: Anybody who considers that is dumb, d-u-m-b,” said Dr. Robert Arnold, a retired Navy captain.
Veterans cited a myriad of reasons for opposing the downtown site including distance, difficulty navigating the streets, lack of parking and the higher incidence of crime in that area.
When Navy veteran Dan McHugh spoke, he asked those in favor of a downtown location to raise their hands. Of a crowd of about 250 in the first meeting, just a few hands were raised.
Suburban sites under consideration for the center needed to have a minimum of 25 developable acres and be within a 15-mile radius of the U of L Medical Center, according to VA officials. Twenty-three proposed sites were narrowed down to the top three: 4906 Brownsboro Road, which includes more than 38 usable acres near Holiday Manor and along Interstate 264; 5905 Fegenbush Lane, which is near Fegenbush and South Hurstbourne and includes 53.6 acres; and the 13600 block of Factory Lane, which has 222 acres across from the Ford Kentucky Truck Plant.
“One of the greenfield projects would be the thing to do, and I prefer the Brownsboro Road one because it would be almost as convenient as the Zorn,” said Korean War veteran Bill Letcher. “A couple of more miles, you can be there.”
While some veterans expressed interest in a suburban site, a majority in attendance at both meetings supported renovating the existing VA center, despite the fact that VA officials said renovation of the current site, if logistically possible, would take no less than six years from decision date to construct.
“Let’s stay where we are now,” said veteran Bill Kaelin.
A 2005 VA study determined that the current center, which was built in the 1950s, is deficient and in need of improvement. Many veterans expressed concern over the lack of parking.
“To redo Zorn Avenue, you’re talking about ‘Extreme Makeover’ on steroids,” said Vietnam veteran Alan Harrison. “Where do you put all the materials it’s going to take to redo the building? You put them in the parking lot. Wait a minute, where do I park?”
The federal government already has appropriated $75 million for the project.
Some veterans were concerned about the cost of buying new land as opposed to building on the existing site.
“While we do not have the cost estimates for the hospitals, it is generally believed that the current site at Zorn is not necessarily the cheapest option. As a matter of fact, because of the complexities of making that site work and the length of time associated with putting the construction together, it may be the more expensive option in respect to the fact that we own the land,” said George Szwarcman, VA chief of real property services. “You’re talking about a facility that is likely to cost several hundred million dollars. While land is obviously not cheap, but when you consider the percentage of the land value versus the overall costs of the medical center, it is going to be a relatively small percentage.”
As far as timing compared to the VA estimation of six years for construction on the existing site, construction on a suburban site would take three years, with a potential start date of 2013; the estimate for the downtown site is four years, with a potential start date of 2015 due to challenges in acquiring the land from multiple land owners currently occupying the proposed downtown site.
Rev. Carl Jones told the VA panel that he and the congregates of Green Street Baptist at 519 E. Gray St. do not want to see their historic church demolished to make way for VA construction. It’s unclear if and how the VA will be able to acquire all the needed space for the downtown site.
The secretary of veteran affairs is to make a final decision on a site in early fall.
John Dandridge Jr., VA Health Care Network director for the Mid South Region, addressed the audience at the end of the meeting.
“Our responsibility is that the secretary fully understands the pros and cons associated with the options and fully understands what the veterans’ sentiments are in respect to and of the options,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, I mean no one can deny ‘no way downtown’ is the feeling you’ve expressed.”
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Jacob Glassner, News Editor/Plate Spinner
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