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Another round of proposals for new veterans home to be sought

LITTLE ROCK — Three of the four sites identified by a task force as prospective locations for a new veterans home have been rejected and a second round of proposals is being sought, the panel heard Thursday.

Cissy Rucker, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Arkansas Veterans Home Task Force that proposed sites in Fort Smith, Russellville and Jacksonville, which the task force visited last month, did not meet federal requirements for the facility.

Rucker said a proposed site in the Haskell community outside Benton is still under consideration. She also said she met with Jacksonville officials and looked at four other possible locations in that city, all of which had potential.

Rucker said her agency is working with the state Department of Economic Development and plans to solicit a second round of proposals for locating the veterans home. This time, the requirements, which are very specific and detailed, are patterned after federal guidelines as well as the process used by the state of Nebraska recently when it sought a location for its veterans home.

Rucker said she expects the new requirements to be sent out next week. Cities and counties wishing to submit a proposal will have until Nov. 15 to do so, she said.

The old veterans home in Little Rock was closed last year after failing building and health inspections. The Legislature created the task force during this year’s legislative session, along with approving $7.5 million in funding. The state has obtained $14 million in federal matching funds.

Rucker told reporters after Thursday’s task force meeting she hopes that by the end of this year her department can make a recommendation on a site for a facility and the services the facility would offer.

“If you want to apply you are welcome under this criteria and it’s very strict,” she told reporters, adding that she and the department’s deputy director have visited about 20 possible locations across the state, including some in Pine Bluff.

During the meeting, Rucker said federal guidelines require that a replacement veterans home must be located within two hours of the old location. It also cannot be located near airports, railroad tracks, industrial areas or other high-noise areas.

She said the site in Fort Smith at Chaffee Crossing was considered too close to the state’s only existing veterans home in Fayetteville.

“If we put (the veterans home) up there all the assets would be in one place,” she said, adding the goal was to make the home accessible to the most people.

The locations in Jacksonville and Russellville were rejected because they are in industrial areas.

She said a second request for proposals was developed because the first one was developed by the task force, and she and the ADVA have received a great deal of specific information that was not available until recently.

“There were things about the criteria that I didn’t know,” she said, including questions like what was previously located on the proposed site, whether it is in a wetland and whether an environmental study has been done.

“It’s things that get deeper into the details than the original proposal that we put out,” she said.

During the meeting, some of the task force members asked what authority the panel has in the process.

“I’m really frustrated with this process,” said task force member Mike Hampton, noting the panel has met monthly since May and “from my standpoint we’re doing very little.”

“I haven’t seen us give a lot of advice,” said Hampton, with the Arkansas Veterans Coalition.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and other members responded that the panel’s role was to advise and that all decisions would be made by the ADVA and the Veterans Affairs Commission.

English said the legislation calls for the task force to present a report to Legislative Council by Oct. 31.

Rucker told task force members that they would be welcome to offer advice and input after Oct. 31, and that she hopes the department and commission can not only select a location but also the type of facility that would be constructed.

She said she thinks a facility for both short-term and long-term care should available for veterans.

“Right now (our priority) is, where are we going to put it, what is it going to look like and who are we going to serve?” she said.

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