Ohio is home to the country’s seventh-largest population of veterans, a group that needs a variety of services — from housing that offers independent living to facilities that provide long-term medical care.
In a state with only two veterans homes, Stark County officials are prepared to help.
According to a 2010 feasibility study by the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Administration, Ohio’s aging veterans need a better system to deliver health care and more housing options, said state Rep. Kirk Schuring R-Jackson Township.
“It’s important we keep it on track. A recent U.S. veterans report shows that Ohio should have two more veterans homes,” Schuring said last week.
The federal study assessed veterans’ resources in 22 Northeast Ohio counties, including Portage, Medina, Stark, Summit and Wayne, to determine the feasibility of building a home close to the largest concentration of veterans. The study looked at drive times to resources for veterans and their families and determined that state facilities don’t match the need.
One of the state’s two veterans homes was built in 1888 in Sandusky for Civil War veterans.
The other, in Georgetown, about 45 miles east of Cincinnati, was built in 2003.
They are considered primary long-term residential health-care alternatives for aging veterans with various medical needs.
Based on the report, Schuring said, he drafted legislation late last year that would allow for the formation of a statewide task force to study the proposal to bring more homes to the state.
The bill, which probably will be offered as an amendment to an appropriations bill already before the legislature, could be ready as soon as next month.
Ohio Veterans Administration Director Tom Moe is reviewing the draft, Schuring said.
“The only way it is going to get done is to do a comprehensive review of what the needs of the entire state are and what the cost will be. Then you have to come up with a mechanism of how you are going to pay for it all,” Schuring said.
Essentially, the task force would be a replication of one formed before construction of the Georgetown facility. It would look at the cost associated with construction, the scope of the facility and whether the need was greater for a beds-only home or a facility with medical services as well.
The other pressing issue is what the cost of operation would be, Schuring said.
“It’s one thing to build something; its another thing to have the money to operate it,” he said.
Stark gets involved
County Commissioner Peter Ferguson said there are more than 100,000 veterans within a 40-minute drive of the Greater Canton area, including those who live in neighboring Holmes, Carroll, Summit, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties.
He believes Stark has land that could provide the space to build a home.
“We don’t want to pinpoint any area specifically. There are a number of areas in Stark County that could work,” he said.
Ferguson said the VA showed no interest when he began a campaign last year to get the agency to open a facility in a former Perry Township hospital.
Ferguson eyed the old Doctors Hospital as a possible site for a VA medical facility after it was closed by Community Health Systems, parent company of Affinity Medical Center.
He said the county went through all the steps needed to get VA approval, going so far as to ask members of Congress to write letters on behalf of the proposal.
The VA “was not interested. They closed Brecksville and opened Wade Park. That was even farther away for our people to travel,” Ferguson said Tuesday.
He said he realized there might be another route to getting additional services for local vets after reading the VA report for Northeast Ohio.
The study indicated that with financing by the Department of Veterans Affairs and funding from the state, a $30.5 million, 168-bed facility is needed.
The home could generate as many as 200 full-time jobs upon completion.
Ferguson said he immediately contacted Schuring and asked for his help to bring a home to Stark County. Schuring set up a meeting with Ferguson, North Canton Mayor David Held and Moe in Columbus last summer.
City steps in
Held was brought into the discussion after he offered one of the most important requirements of any proposal to the VA: donated land on which a home could be built.
“We have 105 acres at the Fairways golf course, and certainly we would love to be brought in to be considered as a home for the veterans,” Held said.
“It is important to us to serve our veterans with the added benefit of bringing more jobs into the city.”
City officials, including council members, are on board with the proposal, he said. There is enough vacant property to situate the facility in the center of the course, leaving a green-space buffer between the home and adjoining residential properties.
Held said the city purchased the former Arrowhead Country Club in 2003 for $4.2 million and began leasing it to a company to operate the golf course. Donating the land would be a good way to dispose of the property, saving on maintenance costs for the clubhouse and the property.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone, Held said.
“It would provide the VA with a property large enough for their needs,” he said.
While Ferguson said the old Doctors Hospital site is still in contention and another site in Alliance might be a possibility, he acknowledged the North Canton property meets all the criteria to make it appealing to the VA with its proximity to interstate highways, entertainment venues and shopping.
“There are five hotels in the Belden Village area for people who come to visit the veterans,” Ferguson said.
The property also already has a clubhouse and swimming pool that might be used, he said.
Ferguson has asked the Stark County Regional Planning Commission to do a scaled-down feasibility study for the area, in association with the Cuyahoga County VA report, to get a jump on Schuring’s task force proposal.
Planning Commission Director Bob Nau and Beth Pearson, chief of community development for the commission, recently met with local VA representatives to gauge local veterans’ needs before they embark on a study to complement the Northeast Ohio report.
Nau said he believes a study with a more specific scope could be completed for $12,000 to $15,000, with the majority of the work done by commission employees.
The study would look at the different types of housing — independent, assisted-living, transitional housing or more permanent housing, such as a nursing home — that local vets might need.
The Stark County Community Improvement Corp. could fund the study, Ferguson said.
Report by end of year
Schuring said he expects the task force to have a feasibility report completed by the end of the year.
“We need to get the task force up and running so we can get into the type of home we are looking to build, the cost associated with it and the operating component — how much it is going to cost to operate it and where we are going to get the money,” he said.
“Once we do all that, then certainly, I will join forces with Dr. Ferguson and anyone else that wants to locate in Stark County.”
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.