Veterans home in Walla Walla to move forward

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJuly 16, 2014 

WALLA WALLA -- A long-delayed state veterans home appears to finally be on its way to construction.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced Wednesday that acting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson committed $23 million, the full federal amount requested, for the state-owned project on the site of the Walla Walla VA Medical Center.

"There are few communities in our entire country that offer more passion and support for our veterans than Walla Walla, and today's announcement is nothing short of historic for the men and women who have served and now call Eastern Washington home," Murray said in a statement.

Murray has worked for more than a decade to bring the recently opened 67,000-square-foot outpatient clinic in Walla Walla and the veterans home to completion, she said.

"Today, we're one step closer to reaching our final goal," she said.

The project can now move forward because it has already secured $12 million in state funding. Hedi Audette, spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, said they hope to start construction in spring 2015 and have it open by summer 2016.

"Those time frames will be further developed in the coming weeks," she said.

The 80-bed facility will be a complex of small houses on the VA campus with a skilled nursing home to provide care to aging veterans and surviving spouses. It will focus on a 10-county area, including Benton and Franklin counties, Audette said. Around 50,000 veterans live in the area, with 20,000 of them ages 65 or older.

It will add 100 jobs and have operating costs of $6.8 million for fiscal 2016, with money coming from Medicaid, VA per diems, Medicare and local contributions, Audette said.

A bill that added the Walla Walla facility to a list of similar homes the state veterans department operates passed the state Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year.

The transfer of the land for the veterans home from the federal government to the state is still not complete, but Audette hopes that will happen in August.

"It's actually moving along very well," she said.

A few local hurdles are left to jump, such as historical preservation measures -- the proposed site was part of the original Fort Walla Walla -- and dealing with the site's water tower, Walla Walla Mayor Jerry Cummins told the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

A tribal blessing for the site of the project was held in May 2013, but its funding was pulled after a longer than expected environmental review.

Walla Walla Air Force Veteran Don Schack, a 10-year veteran of the Walla Walla VA's task force, was pleased to see the home could be coming soon.

"We've still got some issues that have to be done, but now that we've got the funding secure that's huge," he said. "This is going to be an excellent thing for us here in Walla Walla County, an excellent thing for the Tri-Cities, Pendleton, Hermiston. They're all in the (service) area."

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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