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Cleveland Daily Banner - 2/6/2018

Although Gov. Bill Haslam's endorsement of a state veterans home in Bradley County offers no guarantee of immediate federal funding, it does reaffirm to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that the long-awaited project is ready to lay its first brick.

All the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council needs is authorization to plow ahead from the branch of government that will fund two-thirds of the facility's cost.

For veterans organizations, local government and STVHC members, it remains a waiting game; however, most see Haslam's endorsement as another big step in a long and winding journey.

"We appreciate Gov. Haslam's support over the years to get a state veterans home funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs for here in Cleveland," said Cid Heidel, co-chair of the STVHC whose members have led the push for Bradley County to build Tennessee's next veterans facility. "His letter is just another example of his consistent support."

Dated Jan. 30, Haslam's memo was signed the same day as President Donald Trump's first "State of the Union" address in which the commander-in-chief pledged his full support for U.S. veterans in front of a joint session of Congress.

The letter was addressed to the Honorable David J. Shulkin, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Haslam's endorsement of the Bradley County project pointed to the community's readiness to move ahead with a state veterans home facility. He credited local government leaders, Bradley County's four-member legislative delegation and a slew of volunteers and supporters - some who remain anonymous - with raising $7 million to meet the local obligation.

In addition, the Tennessee Legislature has approved the governor's proposed allocation of $7 million in state funding for the Southeast Tennessee facility, the letter to Shulkin pointed out.

"Tennessee has an unrivaled history of service and devotion to this country, and as governor, I am reminded daily of the pertinence of our nickname," Haslam wrote. "This undertaking is no different. Countless hours and energies have gone into making this needed veterans home a reality, and I hope in the near future it will come to fruition."

In keeping with Haslam's lead, Heidel agreed Bradley County's delegation - state Reps. Kevin Brooks and Dan Howell, and state Sens. Mike Bell and Todd Gardenhire - have been instrumental in keeping the veterans home movement alive.

Heidel credited U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais and Chuck Fleischmann, and U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, with doing the same.

The STVHC co-chair acknowledged the road has been long, and its path filled with potholes.

"The VA process and criteria for awarding construction grants for state veterans homes is very complicated," he said. "It favors more populous states with larger populations of veterans even though a smaller state, such as Tennessee, may meet every other standard for a grant in terms of 'readiness' for construction."

Heidel added, "We have communicated to VA the Cleveland and Bradley County community has been ready for at least two years to begin construction ? should any of those states ranked above us falter in their readiness or if additional federal funds become available."

Plus, local leaders aren't exactly sitting around with their thumbs in their pockets, according to Heidel's next comment.

"We have also communicated to VA our concerns regarding procedural bias favoring larger states and not considering 'readiness' to start construction," he said. "Our congressional representatives have informed us they agree with our concerns and are in contact with VA and their colleagues in Congress."

Reportedly, the U.S.Veterans Affairs office is reviewing its process for assessing project priorities - whether new construction or upgrades to existing homes.

Larry McDaris, executive director of Bradley County Veterans Services, took a similar approach in acknowledging Haslam's endorsement, as well as crediting the dream of original visionaries years ago and the current work of veterans home supporters and volunteers.

"We in Bradley County are most grateful for Gov. Haslam's letter to VA Secretary Shulkin, along with state Rep. Kevin Brooks' letter to Secretary Shulkin in late 2017," McDaris said. "Both have been extremely supportive in getting our VA state home here, along with other public officials, local governments, Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council, local veterans organizations, individual veterans and citizens of Cleveland and Bradley County."

McDaris described the partnership as "? a mighty state and local effort on all fronts."

In order to qualify for veterans home consideration, local and state coffers had to come up with 35 percent of the facility's cost, McDaris said. This has been done by way of a $7 million appropriation from the state, $3 million from an anonymous Bradley County donor, and $2 million each from the city of Cleveland and Bradley County, as approved by the city council and county commission.

"The federal 65 percent is all we're waiting for," McDaris stressed. "We are ready with state and local funding. An approved site has been donated and we have architectural plans."

He added, "Each year, a construction priority list for VA state homes is published. We are anxiously awaiting the 2018 list."

Like Heidel and McDaris, Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis - another veterans home proponent - praised the work of those who have stood behind the local project for 11 years.

"Many people across our community - such as [local veteran] John Simmons, anonymous donors, Bradley County and Cleveland city governments, and many others - have strived for over a decade to make this happen," Davis said.

He added, "In so doing, they have also worked to protect the honor and respect that we owe all our veterans."

Davis praised Haslam for his support.

"I am pleased and grateful for this recent letter of support that was forwarded to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by Gov. Haslam," the Bradley County mayor stressed. "I look forward to the day that we all get to welcome the veterans to their new home."

Davis added, "? And that home will be right here in Bradley County in the near future."

Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who is ending his tenure as the city's leader after 27 years with much of that time spent advocating for the veterans home, believes Haslam's endorsement will open some eyes in Washington.

Rowland accepts that the federal VA is tied to regulations and established procedures, but credited Tennessee lawmakers with trying to work through the red tape.

"The letter from Gov. Haslam to the Secretary of U.S.Veterans Affairs sends a strong message to the federal government that Cleveland, Bradley County and the state of Tennessee have waited long enough for our Bradley County veterans home," Rowland said. "Locally, and on the state level, everything required, and more, has been done."

The city mayor added, "I appreciate the governor stepping forward to solidify our efforts. I will say that Congressmen Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais have both shown support, and have exhausted their efforts. But present federal legislation ties their hands."

In closing, Rowland offered encouragement to the cause.

"Hopefully, we can see a light at the end of the long tunnel," he stressed.

In last week's announcement of the governor's letter published in Thursday's edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner, two other key figures in the ongoing quest for a veterans home praised Haslam for jumping aboard.

Bradley County Commissioner Mark Hall, who co-chairs the STVHC with Heidel, said of Haslam's support, "This is the kind of news we have been waiting to hear. I applaud the governor's efforts and anticipate a very positive response."

State Rep. Kevin Brooks also last week publicly thanked the governor. Brooks, who has worked on behalf of the proposed veterans home since the earliest talks, stressed the urgency in keeping the subject on the front burner.

"It is mission critical to keep our local Bradley County Veterans Home on the front line of funding requests," the 12-year legislator stated.

A trio of local businessmen who also have been pivotal in the development of the local veterans home proposal are Steve Williams, Thomas Williams and Robert Wright who partnered early in the process to donate the property. The nearly 30-acre site is found on Westland Drive off APD 40.

Veterans home proponents agreed they must remain patient, and continue to embrace a "wait and see" attitude. However, the entire army of workers - at least, those interviewed by the Banner - believe they now have another reason to feel good about the future of the local veterans home.


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