Journey to site selection outlined at Military Affairs meeting

Wiregrass Economic Development Executive Director Jonathan Tullos talks about the new Veterans Administration Home during the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee meeting Jan. 22.

The selection of Enterprise as the site for the state’s new Veterans Administration Home was a journey of “foresight and teamwork” that spanned years.

“Foresight and teamwork” were key, Wiregrass Economic Development Executive Director Jonathan Tullos told those attending the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs breakfast meeting at the Enterprise Farmers Market Jan. 22.

For the capacity crowd attending the morning event, Tullos outlined the journey that led to the Jan. 3 announcement by the Alabama Board of Veterans Affairs that Enterprise was unanimously chosen as the site for the fifth state veterans home.

It was in October 2018 when the WEDC began receiving phone calls about the proposed veterans home, Tullos said. “The ADVA board had done a feasibility study and in that study recognized that by the year 2045 there would be a need for 1,445 beds to service the veterans throughout the state of Alabama,” he said. “Today there are only 704 beds in the state of Alabama. There is also a waiting list of 911 veterans.

“When that feasibility study came back, they said we need a fifth veterans home and it needed to be in the southeast corner of the state,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect but we formulated a plan.”

The official Request for Site Selection Proposals was distributed July 15, 2019 in Coffee, Dale, Barbour, Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Pike Counties.

“They gave us 30 days to submit a proposal,” Tullos said. “The good news is that the leaders in the Wiregrass Economic Development Corporation and the leaders in the communities that we represented had already been working on it for at least eight months.”

The Veterans Homes Committee ultimately reviewed 12 site proposals submitted from the Wiregrass. On Oct. 28 and 29, 2019 representatives from each of the 12 entities met with the ADVA board.

The RSSP sought a minimum of 27 acres of land to construct the $65 million 175-bed facility, Tullos said. The proposals received were evaluated in terms of five factors, which included the size and location; transportation accessibility; workforce; specialized healthcare services within proximity of the site; and any additional relevant information.

“What the committee told us afterwards was that on each of the factors, the score for Enterprise was just better than for some of the other communities,” Tullos said.

The RSSP was “very detailed,” he explained, and limited to 30, single-spaced, size 12 font, pages with one-inch margins.

The ADVA currently operates the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City, Tut Fann State Veterans Home in Huntsville, William F. Green State Veterans Home in Bay Minette and the Col. Robert L. Howard State Veterans Home in Pell City. They collectively provide care to 704 veterans with a staff of some 900.

ADVA plans to build a single-story 182,000 square foot facility to provide skilled care for eligible veterans. Once at full capacity, the home is projected to employ approximately 250 people and the projected annual payroll—based on the average of the existing four state veterans’ homes—is from $7.5 million to $8.75 million.

“The location selected consists of a donation of 108 acres between Highway 84 and Highway 167. Coffee County was identified as having the largest veteran population projections in the Feasibility Study, while other counties show a reduction in the veteran population,” Tullos said. “Enterprise has a workforce to support the home as well as medical services available to support the needs of the veterans.”

Tullos credited the late Jackie Thompson for finding the land the city purchased. “She brought us some property we were able to acquire between Highway 51 and Highway 167. That property could have sat for 30 years but here we are today—a little over a year later—and realize that property is going to be returning some economic impact in dollars onto the investment the city leaders made.”

Tullos also credited teamwork with the county government. “The county also had a site that they had proposed. This is a t tribute to everybody, a lot of people over the last year and a half had their hands in bringing this to fruition,” he said. “They had the foresight to take a risk on some property that they didn’t know would be a benefit in their administration but they did it.

“Enterprise put together a strong proposal package. The request was for at least 27 acres. They could have offered that. Instead they offered 108,” he said.

In December 2019, the ADVA did site visits, Tullos said. “They went out and visited the communities that they thought were still in the game, so to speak. They notified those communities as to when they would be visiting, who would be there and what their expectations were.”

On Jan. 3 the site selection announcement was made. “What does this mean for the community? We plugged in 275 employees at the veterans’ home and there would be about 324 jobs affiliated with it with about a $19 million annual impact in Coffee County,” he said. “That takes into account the payroll and those folks that would go and spend their paychecks in the community.

“It’s a $65 million project. Goods will be purchased to build the facility. Hopefully we’ll have some local business that will benefit from that. There will be contracts let on the facility. Construction crews will be for the two-year window,” Tullos said. “That’s a one-time economic impact but it’s still an impact to the area.”

Tullos cited three key factors he said may have made the difference in the decision.

“First, Enterprise had the foresight to acquire the land, spent the money to clear it, do title work and a Phase I environmental (study). They did that before they knew the veterans home was going to be here,” Tullos said. “They did that in 2018. At that time, the City of Enterprise was looking forward and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve only got about 30 acres or so of land left in the city that, if there’s an economic development project, that we might be able to offer.’

“We preach regionalism,” Tullos said. “We’re truly a regional organization and we’re a regional area. By the county and the city working on a joint proposal and offering the same kind of package for what they would do for the veterans home at site A and site B, I think that made an impression on the ADVA Board because veterans were clearly being put first.

“Enterprise used the resources at their disposal and started working on the project early,” Tullos said. “When you hear about something that’s coming down the pipeline, you’ve got two options. You can wait until somebody tells you what’s going to happen or you can be proactive and lean forward.

“Finally, acting aggressively gave this area a head start on the project,” he added. “When the ADVA sent out requests for proposals, it gave a 30-day notice. Enterprise had been working on its bid for around eight months.

“In terms of next steps, we have to remember that this is an ADVA project. This is their project, not ours,” Tullos said. “They are going to be guiding the timeline so I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen but what they said at their announcement is to expect to have a ribbon cutting in three years.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity and a great thing for the whole community,” Tullos said. “But more important, the winners in this whole thing are the veterans.”

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