West Tennessee Veterans Home plans to build new local facility

There are nearly 75,000 veterans living in the tri-county area, yet the nearest veterans' home is 100 miles away. That has prompted the non-profit organization West Tennessee Veterans Home to plan a big new development.
West Tennessee Veterans Home, an all-volunteer group composed of active military, veterans, community and business leaders, is taking action in its quest to bring the first veterans home to the Memphis area. The group is reviewing sites and initiating fundraising for the first of what it hopes will eventually be several homes that would serve the nearly 75,000 veterans living in the Shelby, Fayette and Tipton County area of West Tennessee.

Despite the fact that this tri-county area has the largest concentration of veterans in the state of Tennessee, the closest veterans home in the state is nearly 100 miles away at the 140-bed facility in Humboldt. So for many veterans and their friends and families in or near Memphis, it could mean a 200-plus mile round trip (in some cases several times per week) for visits.

"We feel strongly and are dedicated to the idea that our veterans are hugely underserved here," says Holly Swogger, president and board chair of the West Tennessee Veterans Home. "There are between 61,000 and 66,000 veterans in Shelby County alone, so there is an intense need. Our first home here will have 144 beds. With the waiting list in Humbolt right now, we could fill a new home here."

WTVH must secure three debt-free potential sites of at least 25 acres to present to the Tennessee State Veterans Home Board, which will then make a final decision on the location. Two sites have already been identified.

"The city of Millington is willing to contribute a choice of two different sites," says Swogger, who went on to explain that United Housing CDC is also offering up a 25-acre parcel within its 100-acre Wolf River Bluffs development in Frayser. "When that project is completed it should impact Frayser very positively."

WTVH has lease options on the land, and site testing will get underway this spring.

Swogger points out that other sites are also currently under consideration, and the group will continue to accept donations of land within the tri-county area.

WTVH is kicking off a full capital campaign this year to raise approximately $23 million (35 percent of the funding needed) for the $62 million project, and a grant from the Department of Veteran Affairs will provide the remaining $39 million (65 percent).

"We hope to find one to two significant donors that want to be our benchmark, and we will be looking at large and small businesses, corporations, and individuals in the community for their support," says Swogger, who hopes the public/private partnership will have all funds raised by June 1 of 2015, and construction is projected to start in 2017.

The proposed project will make a sizable economic impact, with $60 million in expected construction revenues, employment of 230-plus skilled employees with a $6.5 million annual payroll, $4 million in annual purchases of goods, and $0 in ongoing funding needed, since each state veterans home is a self-supporting institution. Payback on the local $23 million investment will take only two years.

"If we can provide the funding without strings attached, meaning if everything’s donated on our end, this facility will be entirely self-supporting. No subsidies required," Swogger says.

She sees a great benefit for veterans having the chance to spend time with other veterans who’ve possibly had similar experiences.

The new home will provide rehabilitation services to younger soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, including physical, occupational and speech therapies as well as therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Older veterans will be able to get skilled nursing care, with an entire wing dedicated for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

"The whole idea is to get them back to their families," says Swogger.

The contemporary designs for the first veterans center in Memphis will include a bistro and coffee bar as well as gardens for patients and family members to enjoy.

The state already has veterans homes in Knoxville and Murpheesboro as well as one under construction in Clarksville, where construction began in August 2013. Funding is also in place and land is undergoing final approvals for a new veterans home in Cleveland, near Chattanooga.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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