Major concerns about the property led to State of Tennessee Real Estate Asset Management recommending an alternative site be considered. Concerns include the narrow shape of the site, its slope, the soil and fill that exist on-site, the location’s accessibility and its visibility from the road.
“None of them is insurmountable by itself, but when we put them together, they magnify each other,” said STREAM’s Peter Heimbach during a Thursday night session of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.
A second entrance had been planned to overcome the access issue. Heimbach said this could cause the property available for the home to be even narrower.
Land donor Steve Williams, who attended the crowded gathering, said he had been in discussions with an adjacent landowner about the possibility of acquiring additional acreage to widen the veterans home site.
“I have a personal interest in this. ... My father being a veteran,” Williams said.
Official negotiations have not begun. However, Williams said he is sure something can be worked out.
Heimbach said this possibility would make the site suitable if grading and slope issues could also be addressed. How much land is needed would have to be discussed with the project architect.
“Everyone has been to that site for the past two years, and nothing has been said about it not being acceptable,” Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said. “Most of those things identified by STREAM, I think, are nitpicky.”
Rowland said the STREAM recommendation was “a slap in the face to people who have worked so hard.” He said the news served as a sour end to his Veterans Day.
The only issue that had been previously mentioned to Rowland was the need for a second entrance.
Williams said the grading and slope could be corrected. He commented he had worked on similar projects in the past and overcome all of the issues. He reiterated his offer to grade the property to fix slope and unconsolidated fill issues.
While STREAM made the recommendation that an alternative site be considered, it does not mean it is the final decision. The recommendation was made to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This property and this assessment of it has been devastating to all of us, and I include myself because I want that home in Cleveland and Bradley County just as much as you do,” State Veteran Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder said.
Grinder said the issues did not mean abandonment of the veterans home project.
“We are not going to lose momentum,” Grinder said. “We are not going to let you down.”
She said the idea of adding some additional land had not been discussed previously. Adding land would then create a new site that could be considered, she said.
Even if the proposed site has to be abandoned and a new one secured, Grinder, who is also a veteran, said she is committed to keeping the project on the same timeline.
Grinder said she has “bragged about you to other steering committees” because of the cooperation and grassroots efforts.
Bradley County Commissioner and Council co-chair Mark Hall said the local veterans home council has come too far to simply consider another site.
“We have a community and a city and a county that has rallied behind this cause,” Hall said. “We have got second-grade classes that have raised money and have emptied their piggy banks to help try to fund this project. I have never seen the momentum in my life for any group that has come together and pushed for a cause like this. And now for some reason in the 11th hour they want to label the property unacceptable, and I respectfully disagree.”
Hall said the location of the property with its close proximity to the highway and the hospital are ideal. He said the letter listing issues was vague and that each issue can be addressed.
“I can’t tell you personally how upsetting it was to me,” state Rep. Kevin Brooks said. “There is no other project in this county that is as personal to me as this one.”
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who could not attend the actual meeting, was on hand prior to its start to speak with Grinder.
Heimbach and Grinder said each of the four issues could be addressed. However, they were concerned that, even with fixes, it might not create the best location for the veterans home.
“We want the best possible site for veterans,” Grinder said.
Hall said the Council needs to appeal in any way it can to keep the current site.
“Let’s cross every hurdle that comes in front of us,” Hall said. “There is too much at stake to be quitting now.”
Need for an additional entrance and soil issues of the land had previously been discussed.
Cid Heidel, co-chair of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council, said the council had submitted a due diligence report to the state on the proposed property on Westland Drive. In the study, the council sought to address previous issues.
“We knew there were some issues, but we thought they were things we could handle,” Heidel said.
Heidel said visibility of the site from the road had never been mentioned before. Later, Heimbach said the visibility issue was not a major reason a site would not be recommended.
“It was never made clear to us about siting or visibility of the site for the project. … We were shocked, disappointed and pretty much dismayed with the decision. And some of us equally feel the same way about the rollout of the message. It happened on the Friday night before Veterans Day,” Heidel said.
Grinder said she made the decision to call on Friday because “I didn’t think it was fair to you to wait until Tuesday.”
“I wanted you to know as soon as I did,” Grinder added.
Grinder said her office and STREAM are in discussions on improving communication and how information is passed on to local officials.
Heidel complained of, “No prior consultation with us about the pending decision. No contact, just the message.”
Changes in federal regulations for veterans homes have brought the architects with The Lewis Group concern about fitting the veterans home on the site, Heimbach said.
An exact square footage of the facility is unavailable. Meeting attendees asked how the state agency, which is actually a division of the Tennessee Department of General Services, could say the home could not fit on the site if there is no exact plan.
Heimbach said the original site plan would have been an “institutionalized setting.” Regulations have since changed to a single-occupancy room style. Heimbach said this style requires more space. A narrow piece of land could create accessibility issues at the site.
Veteran Ronald Brooks, a U.S. Army command service major, asked why Heimbach did not make a bigger deal about concerns with the shape of the site when he visited it a year and a half ago.
Heimbach said it had been mentioned. He said the further the project got in the design phase the more of a concern it became.
“Why were we not made aware of this so we could fix this ourselves?” Brooks asked. “Let me have the opportunity.”
Veteran Lt. Col. Heather White asked if the veterans home could be grandfathered in under the old guidelines since the project had been started 10 years ago.
“I am a veteran. I just came back from Kuwait. I am planning it like I am going to be in that home one day,” White said. “You are not going to get a ‘plains of Texas’-built piece of property in this area in this part of Tennessee. You are not going to get an ideal site.”
Heimbach said partial waivers of new federal guidelines had been given for the Clarksville veterans home. However, a full waiver is not possible.
“It seems like every time we turn around there is a new challenge,” said Gary Farlow, president and CEO of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.
Heimbach said STREAM is working with the architect of the Cleveland Bradley County State Veterans Home to develop a plan that will meet all the guidelines and can be used at other sites in the future.
A premade adaptable facility plan that meets current standards does not exist.
The Council asked that Grinder and Heimbach contact the co-chairs when an exact square footage is available. The Council will also be in contact on updating the possibility of securing additional land to widen the site.
New thoughts in design have also increased the price from $22 million to $35 million.
“It’s a much nicer home. There is a lot more square footage to them. They are all single rooms,” Grinder said. “Each house has its own kitchen. Each house has its own fireplace and its own sitting area.”
The cost for the veterans home is divided between the federal, state and local governments. According to the Bradley County Veterans Affairs Office, the breakdown is, “65 percent by the federal government (VA) and 35 percent by state/local, plus the land must be donated.”
Grinder said she had talked with representatives of a local $3 million anonymous donor that morning. The representatives assured her the donation is still available.