Local veterans are mounting a letter-writing campaign to push the state to recommit funds toward a proposed veterans home on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs campus.
The proposal is for a 120- to 150-bed home that would provide nursing home and memory care to veterans. It would be the third state veterans home in Oregon and would be modeled on a similar facility in Lebanon. Estimates for its cost have ranged from $30-$45 million dollars, depending in part on the number of beds.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill said the veterans are angry that $10.5 million in lottery bond money for the veterans home wasn’t renewed in the 2019 legislative session, while the Legislature did approve $10 million for another Roseburg project, an allied health college, also known as the med ed college or the Southern Oregon Medical Workforce Center.
Hill said this is the latest in a long line of promises made and broken to build a veterans home in Roseburg. The first of those promises, he said, was made in 1893.
He said he plans to print 1,500 copies of a letter he’s written to Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and state legislators. He and other veteran leaders will sit at the Douglas County Veterans Service Office booth at the Douglas County Fair next week and encourage others to sign copies to be sent to those officials.
Hill said he blames the new ODVA director, who he said was less interested in the Roseburg veterans home than the previous director. He also blames local legislators, who he said “caved and went over to the med-ed side.”
“They did a real disservice to the veteran community, and I don’t think that they are fully cognizant of the effort that’s gone into it over the years,” he said.
The Roseburg VA and the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs in 2018 expressed strong support for building a veterans home here. The Legislature has also committed to siting the next vets home in Roseburg, even enshrining that commitment in a state law.
The problem has been the money.
In order for the project to go forward, it would have to obtain both state and federal funding — with the federal VA providing 65% of the funding and the state a 35% match. The state first committed its part of the funds, from state lottery bonds, in 2011. State Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Winston, had secured a renewal of that funding for the project in the 2015 and 2017 sessions, but the project had never risen high enough on the federal VA’s priority list to become a reality.
Heard said he did advocate for a fifth renewal of the state funding, but with the federal government failing to prioritize the project, there just wasn’t a way to get the home built within the two years before state funding would have expired again.
The anticipated cost had also risen, increasing the state’s share from $10.5 million to more than $16 million. Heard said that compounded the difficulty he and Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, had at making a strong case for the project. It was made even tougher, he said, by the fact the Democrats had a supermajority.
“The VA home is still a top priority for us going forward, but we have many other desperate needs in this community that are ready to go now and are not dependent on the federal government funding the project,” Heard said. “It is my hope that we will start getting strong support from our federal Congress members to get the project prioritized by the feds so we can re-secure the state matching funds in the 2021 cycle.”
Heard pushed hard and successfully for the approval of $10 million in lottery bonds for the allied health college. That project does not require any federal funds, and the city of Roseburg has also pledged a $10 million loan toward the construction cost.
The college would be a satellite of George Fox University and would offer four-year and advanced degrees in nursing, psychology, physical therapy and other healthcare fields that are in demand locally and around the state. According to a study commissioned by the city, it would be a $38 million boost to the local economy over the next 20 years.
Hill reached out to former interim Roseburg VA director David Whitmer, a supporter of both projects, in July about the future of the vets home. Hill asked Whitmer if the approval for the health college had jeopardized the vets home.
Whitmer, in turn, reached out to Pac/West Communications, a lobbying firm representing the college project. Pac/West Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Ryan Tribbett wrote back July 15 that both projects were lobbied for by Pac/West and supported by Heard and Rep. Gary Leif.
“All of our meeting contained both requests, and while we were regularly told that $26.5 million to fund both the VA home and the school was too much money for little old Roseburg, we continued lobbying for both all the way to the end,” Tribbett wrote.
Tribbett wrote that he sees the two projects as complementary. He said the college will help the Roseburg VA fill its 250 vacancies in nursing and other jobs.
If created, the vets home would be owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has agreed to a land swap with the state so the vets home could be sited on the VA campus.
Veterans have hoped for a large veterans home there since 1893, when Roseburg was chosen as the site for an Oregon Soldiers Home, according to Earle B. Stewart American Legion Post 16 Historian Kirk Conner.
In 1929, Roseburg’s Dr. Earle B. Stewart successfully lobbied to have Roseburg named as the site of a proposed Northwest Soldiers Home, Conner said in an email to Hill. The National Soldiers Home Bureau pledged that a 400-acre facility would house 4,500 veterans.
That never happened.
Instead, the Oregon Soldiers Home, which had housed 69 veterans, was merged with the Roseburg VA in 1933 and the veterans moved there. The Soldiers Home building burned down later that decade and was never rebuilt.