Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said Thursday that she believes Pine Bluff is a strong contender for landing a new state veterans home.
“There are three potential sites here that we’re looking at,” Hollingsworth said in discussing a second Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs request for site proposals. “I can’t go into details on the sites at this time because some particulars are still being worked out, but I will say again that I think we’re definitely in the running.”
Also Thursday, the Arkansas Veterans Home Task Force advisory panel said it would not have recommendations for a site by its original Oct. 31 deadline. The latest proposal requests, distributed this week, require a response by Nov. 22 and state a placement decision is to be made by Dec. 31.
Meeting Thursday, the panel said it would send a letter to the Arkansas Legislative Council recommending that it create a 10-member subcommittee, including five members each from the house and senate, so lawmakers can continue to participate in the process of finding a location and building the new facility.
“This does take time and we just didn’t have that time,” said Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, chairman of the task force.
After its creation, the 22-member task force met monthly beginning in June to help plan for the new veterans home. In August, it narrowed the possible location of a new veterans home to three cities. Pine Bluff didn’t make that cut.
However, Veterans Affairs Director Cissy Rucker found a number of problems with the criteria used in the selection process and last month told the task force that her agency was working with the Arkansas Department of Economic Development and planned to solicit a second round of proposals.
The new requirements are more specific and detailed, patterned after federal guidelines and the process used by the state of Nebraska recently when it sought a location for a veterans home.
“I don’t know enough about picking a site to do it in the very best way,” Rucker told reporters after Thursday’s meeting. “So I called in some experts, from different agencies … we went to a site consultant because we’re only going to do this one time and I want to do it right.”
She said the new site proposal process “is really going to level the playing field because everybody will be counted the same way.”
“We’ve received some interest,” she said.
Rucker also said that the location of a new veterans home would not be restricted to within two hours of where the previous home was located in Little Rock.
“That’s changed,” she said, adding that her agency recently learned that the two-hour limit was just a suggestion, but because the old home was not at full capacity that limit is not needed.
“We’re having to look at the concentration of veterans, where would they best be served,” she said. “We need to use our money to serve the most veterans, where are they and how can we best serve them. “
The old veterans home in Little Rock was closed last year after failing building and health inspections. The legislature this year approved $7.5 million to build a new facility and the state has obtained $14 million in federal matching funds.
Hollingsworth said the facility would result in a minimum of 100 to 125 “good-paying” jobs, not including contracted services. The ADVA said the home would have a $4 million annual operating budget beyond an estimated yearly payroll of $3 million.
“Should Pine Bluff be selected for the home, we’re obviously looking at a major, major economic impact,” the mayor said. “Staffing requirements range from physician, physician’s assistant, certified nurse assistant, licensed practical nurse and registered nurse to psychologist, psychiatrist, physical therapist and a number of other health professions.”
Hollingsworth said the city fares well in satisfying assorted criteria to be considered in site selection. The criteria includes availability of a 20-plus acre site, neighborhood and surrounding land use, environmental and regulatory factors, area government and community support, fire and police services, crime rate, transportation, utility services and medical care.
“I can’t help but be excited over the possibilities,” she said. “We’ve got a solid team effort going, involving many interests. Southeast Arkansas College and Jefferson Regional Medical Center are aware of the needs in bringing the veterans home here, and several other institutions and individuals are lending their resources, expertise and abilities to the cause.”
The mayor said she believes Pine Bluff would be an excellent host for the facility.
“We’ve got some other improvements taking place that would be a plus for locating the veterans home here,” she said. “There are a number of road and highway improvements, and our municipal airport, which started as a World War II pilot training school, has had a lot of enhancements. Our public safety services are advancing. Our fire department’s safety rating has gone up, and our police department is earning a reputation for its effectiveness, too.
“Of course, people always make a big difference as well,” she continued, “and it’s easy to see that people in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County respect our veterans. We’ve always have good participation in Veterans Day and Memorial Day and other military events. The Army’s Pine Bluff Arsenal has been with us nearly 75 years, so military service is and has been a big part of our lives here. And current servicemen and women know they’re appreciated here, too.”