Work together on VA site
By TOM BARRETT and MICHAEL MURPHY
Posted: Aug. 7, 2006
From the outside, the National Soldiers Home Historic District on Milwaukee’s west side yields a serene experience with groves of trees and beautiful historic architecture, which have served our veterans physically and monumentally since the days after the Civil War.
However, from the inside, the buildings are in their final stages of life. It won’t be long before the exteriors catch up and we lose what’s left of this legacy. The historic area is part of a larger complex, the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The future of the entire grounds deserves careful consideration.
We are now faced with a decision on what course of action should be taken to preserve and protect the aging buildings in the historic district. There is also a question about the future of the land near the medical center itself.
Several years ago, Congress authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a process for dealing with what were viewed as underutilized properties at various sites around the country, including Milwaukee. This act of Congress was passed in order to provide additional funding for veterans benefits.
The guidelines for disposing of underutilized properties were established by Veterans Affairs and included permission for the VA to seek enhanced-use leases for its properties, meaning that it could solicit offers directly from commercial developers without an opportunity for any public comment. For Milwaukee, this was slated to take place earlier this year.
Sharing concern with veterans and other interested parties, we lobbied the VA to hold off on issuing a request for proposals directly to the commercial developers. We believe Milwaukee must take steps to ensure that an open public planning process be an integral part of any decisions regarding the future of the VA grounds. We have formally requested permission to lead this process, and we await a response.
We want to see the Soldiers Home District remain a special place to honor the legacy of those who gave so much to protect the freedom and prosperity of this nation. We stand with veterans, the Soldiers Home Foundation and America’s Freedom Center in their efforts to preserve the legacy of the historic district. The challenge is to find the funding necessary to keep these buildings with us.
The second area, the grounds near the Zablocki Medical Center, is of equal concern. We believe that if Milwaukee doesn’t lead a planning effort, this area could be leased directly for commercial use without any input from veterans or the community.
The VA will only consider our proposal if it garners additional funding for veterans benefits. We believe that Milwaukee can best preserve the historic district by seeking a carefully planned bioresearch and technology park in a limited area not in the Soldiers Home District but near the medical center.
This would meet the criteria established by the VA, address concerns raised by veterans’ organizations and enhance the city’s medical research and technology sector.
This concept will provide direct benefits to veterans through lease monies as well as the indirect benefit of medical advancement.
We believe that Milwaukee stands a better chance of protecting the most sacred and hallowed parts of the VA grounds by following this locally guided course of action.
We have a deep and abiding respect for veterans and their sacrifices in service to our country. It is with this respect that we invite veterans’ organizations to participate in the city’s planning process.
By working together, we can protect one of our city’s most treasured places while maintaining what makes it special.
Tom Barrett is mayor of Milwaukee, and Michael Murphy is a Milwaukee alderman.