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Prime beachfront acreage could be great state park, senator says

Two uses of VA property up for discussion

Gulfport — The use of 50 acres of prime beachfront property is being debated should the present owner vacate the premises. The owner is the federal government and the current occupant is the Veterans Administration. VA centers around the country are undergoing a best use assessment as the veteran’s population ages and increases.

A commission, Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES), was appointed by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi to look at VA centers. According to Chris Alexander, public affairs officer for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, the commission made a recommendation to consolidate the services of the Gulfport and Biloxi centers into one location in Biloxi. The earliest the Gulfport property could be available for other uses is 2012.

“At this point, we’re still waiting,” Alexander said. “CARES made the recommendation and the Secretary forwarded it to Congress but it has not been funded.”

He said the consolidation is an all or nothing proposition that carries a $200-million price tag. Current services in Gulfport include nursing home, inpatient and outpatient mental health, dementia care unit, outpatient primary care and some administrative support.

“We would have to relocate and build or renovate the existing property in Biloxi to absorb the Gulfport center,” Alexander said. “Biloxi is bigger from a patient care perspective, but it’s always difficult to change and it’s emotional.”

The Biloxi VA Center, located on Pass Road, has the main business office, in-patient and ambulatory surgery, the main 120-bed nursing home, eye care and other specialty care clinics and a domiciliary. Alexander explained that a domiciliary is unique to the VA and is an inpatient facility that works with veterans for specified periods of time.
The average age of VA facilities everywhere is 50 years. CARES has been charged with assessing how these facilities can supply better services to veterans. Some are being looked at for closure and consolidation.

“We’re trying to get positioned for the future,” Alexander said. “The population has shifted from the North to the South so we’re looking at where we’re growing, where we’ll need facilities and where is the best infrastructure.”

Should the Gulfport center be relocated to Biloxi, Alexander said the Gulfport property could be leased for 75 years for enhanced use or sold outright. Money received from a sale would go into the government’s general fund. Lease funds would be used to support VA patient care activities.

“There’s the possibility it would be sold but that’s not likely,” he said. “We would look at what’s the best use for the community and the VA. It must be a fit for the VA and bring in funds for the VA.”

While two ideas for best use are being publicly discussed, Alexander says there are many more ways the property could benefit the community and the Veterans Administration.

A Southern Miss healthcare facility?
U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor proposes to use the property for healthcare education aligned with the University of Southern Mississippi.

His Gulf Coast chief of staff, Beau Gex, said, “We would like to have it turned over to USM for a nursing school and later a medical school. Right now there’s no money for this project, but if that changes, we want USM to be there.”

He says the main thing is to make sure the valuable waterfront property does not fall into private hands.
State Sen. Billy Hewes III agrees with that, but has a different use in mind for the property. He would like to see it become a state park with lodge or cabin-type facilities.

A positive response, senator says

“As a long-time fan of our national and state parks systems, it is apparent to me that we lack a coastal park of this sort with lodging and access to Coast beaches,” he said. “Of the 28 established state parks, only eight are below Jackson, and the two coastal parks have no cabin facilities.”
Hewes says he’s had a lot of positive response to his suggestion, including the state parks department, and is talking to interested parties.

“Those I talk to think it’s a good idea and I’ve had no negative response,” he said. “There’s no sense of urgency, but if consolidation happens, we’ll be in a position to move the idea forward for a use that will generate funds for the VA.”

He also notes that the majority of parks are in more rural areas but the population is growing on the Coast and that other states have parks on their coastlines.

USM spokeswoman Lisa Mader says president Shelby Thames has met with Taylor and Principi. He has also been given approval from the College Board to move ahead and continue to explore the idea.

“It takes a great deal of time for a project like this, but we feel it would be a good match for the property and USM,” she said. “We continue to grow our nursing program and can see a use for that and allied health programs.”

She added that with the increase in the aging and general population on the Coast, Southern Miss sees a need for a healthcare facility on the property.

Gex points out that Harrison County has more retired veterans than any county in the state and that number is expected to increase. “As the Vietnam veterans age, along with those from the two Gulf wars, the use of veterans’ facilities is projected to increase in the next few years,” he said.”If, and the main word is if, CARES moves the Gulfport VA center, we want to be ready to put that property to best use.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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