Mayor must push back on VA

Dec 21, 2016 at 10:24 am
Mayor must push back on VA

In response to the escalating chorus to rethink the location for a new Veterans Affairs medical center, Mayor Greg Fischer took the first step, making the debate real, by pointing out the obvious: Louisville has other potential sites — sites with fewer problems than the one at Brownsboro Road.

Fischer is to be lauded for speaking out.

Now it’s time for the mayor and everyone else to really push. But we all need to know the risks, and what moving the hospital could mean for the city.

It was unfortunate to see Insider Louisville post an incomplete, misleading story last week about the hospital that referenced U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, my dad. The story focused on a letter from Fischer to the VA voicing his concerns about the Brownsboro site and offering that the city has other properties. In identifying the Brownsboro parcel, the story said, “While the VA and local congressional delegation have hoped to push forward with their preferred site…”

This is not Yarmuth’s preferred site. Only the VA prefers this site. Asking “why” on both is important.

Further, the phrase “local congressional delegation” links to another Insider article about Yarmuth discussing the possibility and ramifications of moving the site at this point. The article describes his position: “While saying he has been ‘pretty agnostic’ about the site for the new VA hospital, Yarmuth adds that his personal preference would have been to put it in West Louisville, where it would provide more of community-wide benefit.”

Pretty agnostic? Did the reporter think to ask Yarmuth “why?” Because it would be important to understand in which direction the district’s congressman is pulling.

When I asked Yarmuth, he explained what he meant by “pretty agnostic”: The medical center has never been his project. It was announced months before he was elected to Congress in 2006. He said his only goal throughout has been to help facilitate community involvement in the process — primarily involving veterans, but also the city and UofL Medical School, which would provide staff. And, he said, he has never wanted his preference to take priority over those of others, particularly veterans.

In the beginning, the VA had considered a downtown site at the request of the city and UofL, but it decided it would take too long to acquire two contiguous city blocks. Yarmuth said, he would have liked it built on land recently considered for Wal-Mart at 18th Street and Broadway, which would generate economic development in an area that needs it. But again, he never wanted his opinion to carry more weight than others’ opinions.

At this point, Yarmuth said, he has concerns about what delays could do to the project. He said that reopening site selction process could delay the project by 10 years. It could be shorter, if the city provides a specific shovel-ready site.

So the question for Fischer, and the community is: Do the risks of delay outweigh the rewards?

No, the rewards of considering another site — in The West End — outweigh the risks of delaying the project.

My fear is that this community is becoming gun shy for fear of losing the project entirely. But this is not Wal-Mart.

We shouldn’t be scared into thinking the hospital will not be built.

The VA’s analysis concluded that a new medical center is necessary, and that the existing one off of Zorn Avenue will not be sufficient to serve veterans in the future. Plus, it’s hard to imagine U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell letting a federal project of this size fail in his own backyard.

As for the VA’s “preferred site,” the VA has analyzed only the properties that were submitted for consideration, which makes sense. Why would the VA inspect a site that doesn’t exist?

Now, Fischer needs take charge of this process before it’s too late and insist the VA consider the city’s unused properties.

The 27-acre West End property, formerly considered for the FoodPort project, should be the VA’s new option.

This decision will impact the community and its veterans for decades. It is worth the extra time to make the best selection, not just the quickest. We need to let Fischer know that we will not blame him if his efforts fail, but we will blame him for not trying.

This could be his legacy.