Three eastern Oklahoma towns are competing to be the setting for a relocated state Veterans center.
City officials from Muskogee, Sallisaw and Poteau traveled several hours to tour a Veterans center in Lawton on Wednesday, according to a sign-in sheet obtained by The Oklahoman. The goal was to view the sort of facility that may be built in their town.
Which town will host the relocated Talihina Veterans Center, which is slated for closure, has been a guarded secret. Employees and city officials in Talihina have outspokenly objected to closure of the center and have feared it will be moved far from their scenic small town in southeastern Oklahoma.
Poteau is 40 miles northeast of the Talihina Veterans Center and by far the closest of the prospective competitors.
“We're in a position where probably a majority of the people currently working in Talihina live within our footprint of employment already,” said Poteau Mayor Jeff Shockley. “So, as much as a few new jobs, it's important to save the jobs that we have, too.”
Talihina and Poteau are divided by a stretch of the Kiamichi Mountains. Shockley estimates about half of Talihina Veterans Center employees live on the Poteau side, making relocation to Poteau the least disruptive option for current employees.
“There will be some people who will drive now that didn't drive before and there will be a lot of people who will drive five miles instead of 40,” the mayor said.
Sallisaw is 75 miles northeast of the Talihina Veterans Center and Muskogee is 85 miles northwest. The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has said it will not consider options more than 90 miles away from the current location in Talihina. Veterans Affairs Secretary Myles Deering prefers a locale that's commutable from Talihina.
“We've got trained employees there, we don't want to get rid of them all,” Deering told The Oklahoman in an interview last week. “We want to employ as many as we can. Why would I want to start from ground zero and build up a workforce?
“If you move that center 50, 60, 70, 80 miles away, how many of those people do you think are going to follow us? Because the further you move away, people are just not going to be willing to commute on a day-to-day basis.”
The decision ultimately rests with the Oklahoma Veterans Commission, a nine-man board appointed by the governor. Commissioners will meet Sept. 24 to consider all proposals, which are due Aug. 29.
“There could be more than three,” said Sarah Lane, an attorney for Veterans Affairs.
The three towns currently interested have taken varying degrees of action. The city council in Poteau formed a committee to craft a proposal. George Bormann, the economic development director in Sallisaw, says his city is considering writing a proposal.
“We believe the nursing center will be beneficial to whichever community is chosen, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will ensure the location is beneficial to those that matter most, the Veterans,” Bormann said.
Mike Miller, the city manager in Muskogee, said his city is in the process of writing a proposal. He calls Muskogee "a very Veteran-friendly community" and expects the presence of a federal VA hospital there to be a strong selling point.
"I would hope the commissioners look fondly on that. It would be convenient for residents," Miller said.
In April, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 3042, which allowed for closure of the Talihina Veterans Center and construction of a new long-term care facility. It granted the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority permission to generate up to $35 million for it.
The new center can be built from scratch or can be a refurbishing of an existing building. Property for the new center can be unused state land, land donated by a private company or local government land. Poteau, for example, hopes to use city property.
In Lawton on Wednesday, representatives from the three towns took turns touring what Veterans Affairs Executive Director Doug Elliott calls “our starship,” the agency's premier Veterans center. The Poteau mayor and three city councilmen were there, along with economic development experts from Sallisaw, Miller from Muskogee and two Port of Muskogee officials.
“I think it's a positive and a good chance for our community to grow,” said Shockley, the Poteau mayor. “The main thing would be keeping the service for the Veterans, giving them the respect they deserve.”
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