The timing of the announcement by STREAM, a division of the Department of General Services, fueled the legislators’ fire even further when they learned of the disapproval late last week on the doorstep of Veterans Day Weekend.
Although the four-member team — which has worked closely with local government jurisdictions and the Bradley County Veterans Affairs Office for years to bring the dream to fruition — remains up in arms, their fury may have been tempered by Thursday night’s unannounced visit by Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs.
In front of a crowd of about 50 veterans, members of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council and local government representatives, the commissioner heard a series of potential solutions that might keep the new veterans home in the same spot. The ideas discussed include the potential of adding some additional land to better accommodate the home’s needed dimensions and making improvements to the surrounding terrain. (See additional details in the story accompanying this article.)
One longtime Tennessee lawmaker who feels better about the predicament following Thursday night’s debate at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce is state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland who represents the 24th Legislative District.
“I am grateful that Commissioner Grinder flew all the way from Memphis to be here,” Brooks, who attended the gathering, told the Cleveland Daily Banner. “It’s truly encouraging to hear her say that our State Veterans Home is not halted ... that this is only a speed bump.”
Brooks — like his three fellow legislators — remains disturbed by the Veterans Day Weekend timing of the announcement. But he is quick to point to Grinder’s prompt attention and her decision to be in Cleveland in person for what could have become a volatile meeting.
Brooks believes part of the edge was taken from the suddenly charged atmosphere in Bradley County by the willingness of so many to step up to offer solutions and to pledge their support to keep the State Veterans Home on schedule and within the same timetable. Before STREAM’s announcement, the local Veterans Affairs Office was looking for construction startup of the 108-bed facility within 12 to 18 months.
“Multiple offers of solutions were given at Thursday night’s meeting. Including the additional land adjoining the existing site, new options for additional entries or exits, and offers of grading were all discussed,” Brooks said.
He said state officials welcomed the ideas.
“After hearing the multiple offers of help, solutions and ways to work out the current proposed land site, Commissioner Grinder and the STREAM staff have agreed to re-evaluate their recommendation to find an alternate site,” Brooks pointed out. “They will then communicate their re-evaluated findings and report them back to the chair and co-chair of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council.”
He added, “As such, this means the local Cleveland/Bradley State Veterans Home is not halted. It is simply on a temporary hold until the current site can be re-evaluated.”
Brooks credited Grinder, who is a veteran herself, for giving Bradley County her priority.
“Her dedication and commitment to the veterans of our state is without question,” Brooks said. “Commissioner Grinder did not have to come here to face this meeting Thursday night. But she chose to be here to help find solutions.”
Brooks offered his personal support to the local veterans home.
“My commitment to the State Veterans Home has never waivered and it has never been stronger,” the legislator stressed. “I will lock arms with the men and women who were in that room Thursday night to see this project through to its completion.”
Brooks pointed to one irony. Last week, he met Col. James Sliger, a 91-year-old World War II veteran who also served in the Tennessee National Guard.
“Col. Sliger asked me, ‘How’s that veterans home coming along?’” Brooks recalled. “I assured him we are working hard on it. He then followed up by saying, ‘Well, I’m 91 years old and I am holding on to see that new veterans home.’”
Brooks suggested the timing of the initial announcement remains a sore spot.
“... The timing of the announcement (by STREAM and the commissioner’s office) could not have been brought at a worst time — Veterans Day Weekend,” he said.
To Cleveland and Bradley County veterans, Brooks added, “We will stand strong and united. Your state delegation will continue to work hard to right that which is wrong and that which was so poorly timed.”
State Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland who represents the 22nd Legislative District, joined his Tennessee House of Representatives colleague in condemning the timing, but in pledging full support to keep the veterans home development on schedule.
“It is important to focus on the goal of building a State Veterans Home in Bradley County that will serve the veterans of Southeast Tennessee with excellence,” Watson told the Banner. “We owe Tennessee veterans the best we can offer; therefore, we need to find a solution to the problem at hand.”
Watson said he is disappointed at STREAM’s initial recommendation to reject the donated property; however, he is encouraged by the show of support by community leaders and state officials to work together to reach a solution that will keep the home in Bradley County, preferably on the same site and within the same timetable.
“Our local legislative body is determined and we are looking into options,” he said. “Our focus must remain on the goal of building this veterans home.”
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville who represents the 9th Senatorial District, said STREAM’s initial decision “... caught us off guard and was very disappointing.”
Like Brooks and Watson, he urged all entities to work together until the setback is resolved.
“We must work through this problem and keep this needed project on track,” Bell said. “... [We] have already begun conversations toward that end.”
Bell said the local State Veterans Home is close to his heart.
“I have talked with many local veterans, and am the father of a veteran who is still active in service,” the senator offered. “I fully understand the great need we have to serve those who fight for our freedoms with the long-term care services that they deserve. We will continue to fight for this project and against any delays until it is completed.”
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga who represents the 10th Senatorial District, echoed Bell’s remarks. He also took issue with the state division’s timed announcement.
“For this announcement to have come on Veterans Day Weekend — with no prior indication of a problem and many months of work by local groups and volunteers — makes this project even more of a priority for the legislators to be involved in finding a solution,” Gardenhire said. “This has been high on our priority list for completion — especially Mike, Kevin and Eric, who have worked on it longer than myself.”
Gardenhire added, “This project is extremely important to us, as it is to all of Bradley County and the families of veterans.”