The state’s selection committee has weighed bids from four cities and is recommending that Kearney be the site of a new $121 million veterans home for central Nebraska.
It’s understandable that leaders in Grand Island, site of central Nebraska’s current veterans home, would express disappointment. Grand Island has been home to the existing facility since 1887. The veterans home, with more than 350 employees, is a major local employer. And Grand Island rightly has pride in its great success not only in hosting the State Fair since 2010 (relocated from Lincoln amid complaints from some Lincoln-area residents) but also in raising the annual event to impressive new heights.
Still, it raises concern that some Grand Island leaders, in the immediate wake of the committee’s recommendation of Kearney, have said they intend to fight the selection, appealing both to the Nebraska Legislature and to the federal government (which will make the final decision).
The reaction is understandable, as is the disappointment for the other competing cities, Hastings and North Platte. But it’s important to focus on the top priority: making sure that the process stays on track for a modern new facility to care for Nebraska’s veterans.
Nebraska has a crucial statewide interest in seeing this process move forward without needless delays.
The state can’t afford to bog down in internal quarreling over the project. Otherwise, the feds are likely to lower the project in priority and move on to other facilities elsewhere.
Everyone agrees that the new veterans home will provide major improvements. The current facility is multistory and requires that around 200 residents share 57 bathrooms. Only 13 residents have their own bathrooms. It has been more than 40 years since a new building was added to the site.
In the new, 225-bed facility, each resident would have a private room and bathroom, and rooms would be grouped around shared space. The building, with around 330,000 square feet, would be one-story.
The Nebraska state government is contributing $47 million, with the federal government chipping in the remaining $74 million.
If the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gives approval this year, groundbreaking could occur in 2015 with a ribbon cutting in 2018, according to John Hilgert, director of the state’s Division of Veterans Homes and Veterans Affairs.
In reacting to the recommendation of Kearney for the new veterans home, a group of Grand Island leaders issued a statement claiming that the process was neither fair nor open. They also argued that the decision effectively was made a year ago when Kearney officials spoke with state officials.
It’s hard to see how such claims line up against important facts. First, the selection committee that made the recommendation consists of three respected, professional-minded leaders in state government: Hilgert; Carlos Castillo, then-director of the Department of Administrative Services; and Catherine Lang, director of the Department of Economic Development and Labor.
These are not small-minded individuals known for playing loose with state policy decisions.
Second, the four cities that submitted bids — Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings and North Platte — were judged using numerical criteria. Scores were designated in nine categories: physical factors; utilities and infrastructure; cultural factors; environmental factors; community services; regulatory factors; work force factors; community support factors; and program enhancements.
When the totals were calculated, the results were Kearney, 1,033; Hastings, 977; Grand Island, 889; and North Platte, 855.
It’s not unusual in Nebraska to have communities compete by submitting bids for major projects. That’s how Grand Island landed the State Fair, after all, as well as a National Guard aviation facility.
Other examples include the placement of a new state prison in Tecumseh in 1998 and the relocation of the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home from Douglas County to Sarpy County in 2007.
The key thing now is for Nebraska to send a strong message to Washington: Nebraska is ready to work with federal authorities as needed to make this much-needed project a reality in a timely fashion.
Forward motion, not delay, must be the priority.