Vets' home draws tenants, concerns
Recent agreements with local nonprofits mean the ground floor of the Soboleff-McRae Veterans Village and Wellness Center will be fully occupied when it’s completed about a year from now, said Haines Assisted Living president Jim Studley, who’s leading the project.
Tenants will include the physical therapy office of Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), Southeast Alaska Independent Living, Lynn Canal Counseling Services, Hospice of Haines, Cornerstone Home Health, and Haines Assisted Living.
“We’re proud to welcome such valued community services into one cohesive location,” Studley said this week. “Having these resources working together close to Main Street and veteran and elder housing will streamline the good work these groups are doing.”
While the project aggregates several social service agencies, including ones that serve veterans, some residents and landlords have expressed concern that the $6.2 million, government-built structure siphons off business from private landlords currently renting offices to those organizations.
The Veterans Village will charge no rent, but will require tenants to share expenses, Studley said.
Sue Folletti said she will be working to cover the loss of Lynn Canal Counseling, a renter that has anchored her commercial building on Willard Street for about six years. “We’re very impacted.”
“I don’t think anybody knew the impact (on private landlords). I don’t think this was done on purpose. It was a way to get the vets’ home going, but it’s a bummer. I don’t think anybody intentionally went out to screw anybody, but that’s the way the system works.”
Folletti said she feels like she’s been hit by a “triple whammy.” “It’s all of our tax money that supports nonprofits in the first part. Not only am I paying to help support nonprofits with my taxes, I’m losing my income because the government is building a building with our tax money to support nonprofits… I’d hate to say that mine could be another downtown commercial building that’s all boarded up.”
Until recently, HAL officials characterized the veterans building’s first-floor tenants as agencies offering veterans services, with specific mention only of SEARHC, the local medical provider that currently offers physical therapy in its own building.
The veterans’ building project was endorsed in early 2012 by the Lynn Canal American Legion. The Haines Borough Assembly passed a resolution supporting legislative funding of the project in January 2012, but the resolution contained no mention of facilities at the site other than a veterans’ home. The extent of information the assembly had on the project when it passed its resolution of support wasn’t clear at press time this week.
In a March 2012 interview, borough Mayor Stephanie Scott said she couldn’t see a downside to the project. “It’s jobs. Good jobs. We’re the fastest-growing retirement community in Southeast Alaska and we’re capitalizing on our reputation,” Scott said. Scott’s comments were made during an interview for a March 8 CVN story on the project in which Studley said a feasibility study on the project wasn’t yet complete.
That story described Studley’s proposal as a veterans’ home with five to 10 rooms and a common area for recreation or rehabilitation. It didn’t include mention of first-floor commercial space.
The Alaska Legislature, at the urging of former state Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, appropriated $500,000 for a feasibility report for the proposed project in 2011 and $6.1 million for the project in spring of 2012.
Scott this week sent an email to Studley, asking him to address questions about the effect of the project on commercial landlords and another concern that the all-electric building might tip winter power demands over what hydroelectric can supply.
In an interview Wednesday, Scott said she recalled assembly discussion of the project as a veterans’ home, not as wellness center. “The focus was on the benefits of the project… If we had had this discussion, I don’t think the outcome would have been any different, but people would have been prepared for the impact.”
Scott voiced optimism that the borough or HAL could possibly “mitigate” impacts and that the project would be a net win for the community.
“There’s always going to be impacts. I believe we’re resilient and creative enough to see it as an opportunity. I’m willing to help people readjust their vision to see it as an opportunity... This will bring more folks to town, and more services and more utilization of services. There’s a vibrancy and a benefit to that… I don’t know that there’s going to be a downside.”
HAL’s Studley said this week that the building includes commercial space because the building sits in a commercial zone where apartment buildings are prohibited. Apartments in the zone are allowed above commercial space, he said.
Asked if he could understand the perspective of commercial property owners, Studley said he was looking at the bigger picture. “I’m looking at it from the perspective of how I can help nonprofits in this town stay in business. We’re looking at cuts to nonprofits (through reductions in government support) all over this country. A collaborative effort, in concert with government, I think is part of the solution. My larger concern is to take care of the people we’re obligated to help morally.”
Studley said building construction has been progressing well, and he expects 11 apartments will be ready for occupancy by summer. A veterans’ preference means that veterans are placed at the top of a waiting list for units.
“As soon as (the building) is weathered in, we’ll be able to keep going like gangbusters.”
An “unofficial waiting list” has about a half-dozen veterans on it, he said. An official application process will start in 2014, he said. “There are a lot of veterans who have expressed interest.”
The total project pricetag is $8.2 million. HAL is raising the remainder of funds through private foundations, grants and community fundraisers. Studley said completing the first floor could come as much as six months after the opening of the apartments.