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Updated: 7:25 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 | Posted: 7:18 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011

VA to build new medical campus at Fort McPherson



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VA to build new medical campus at Fort McPherson photo
Phil Skinner
Veterans wait for services at the VA Medical Center in Decatur. The federal government is preparing to transform 10 acres and six buildings at Fort McPherson into a $40 million medical campus serving veterans.

By Jeremy Redmon

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The government plans to spend $40 million transforming 10 acres and six buildings at south Atlanta's Fort McPherson into a healthcare campus that would expand services for veterans and relieve pressure on metro area clinics that now serve them.

Details of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' plan come as the military continues preparations to shut down Fort McPherson in mid-September as part of the years-old “Base Realignment and Closure” program. Fewer than 150 workers are still on the largely vacant post now.

The VA redevelopment will not affect hopes of turning other parts of the 488-acre post into mixed-use development complete with a science and technology park, houses, restaurants and shops.

The VA will renovate a vacant 74,000-square-foot brick building that once was a health clinic for troops and turn it into an outpatient clinic for veterans. It is to include primary medical care, mental health, dental, lab, radiology and audiology services. An eye-care center could also be opened at some point later in the former Lawrence Joel U.S. Army Health Clinic.

Other brick buildings across the street from the clinic are slated to house programs for homeless veterans and include a 40-bed center where they could stay temporarily. One of those buildings could become the home of a residential rehab center for veterans struggling with substance abuse problems.

Much of the money has already been budgeted for the project, said Anne Huguenin, executive assistant to the director at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur. The VA plans to pay the Army $12.5 million for the Fort McPherson properties by the middle of September, open parts of the outpatient clinic in August of next year and open the center for veterans in October of next year, she said. The $12.5 million is in addition to the $40 million budgeted for renovations and other costs.

Some VA programs now operating in leased spaces in nearbyEast Point will move to Fort McPherson under the plan, including a community clinic and a program for homeless veterans. But the new medical campus at Fort McPherson will provide more services in larger spaces, expanding the VA’s capacity to serve patients and helping relieve pressure on the bustling VA center in Decatur.

The number of VA patients in the Atlanta area is growing by nearly 10 percent a year, partly due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Huguenin said. Some veterans have lost jobs and health benefits amid the struggling economy, prompting them to seek VA care. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries sustained in the wars.

Veterans interviewed at the Decatur medical center said they hope the VA’s plans will divert some patients to Fort McPherson. They pointed to crowded hallways inside, saying wait times for some appointments can last hours. The VA opened a new parking deck about a year ago there and is building an additional one.

Dwight Robinson, a Gulf War veteran from Cobb County, watched for his vehicle outside the VA center in Decatur Friday as parking valets hustled around him.

“This is the first time I have seen the valet parking backed up,” he said. “The hallways were a lot more crowded than I am used to seeing.”

Other veterans living in the Atlanta area cheered the news about the VA’s plans to expand to Fort McPherson.

“This could be a model for the rest of the country where they have vacant government properties,” said the Rev. Richard Cobble, a Vietnam veteran who worked at Fort McPherson and who uses services at the VA center in Decatur. Cobble said that center is “crowded. And veterans like myself, we get frustrated, we get angry, especially if we have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.”

Thousands of troops and civilians and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual payroll and other spending were connected to Fort McPherson. The closure sent shockwaves through the surrounding community.

The VA will create some new jobs at its medical campus at Fort McPherson, Huguenin said, but a figure was not immediately available.

"The residents are very concerned that they bring in the type of operations that will enhance the community and provide jobs for the people in the surrounding community," said Glenda Knight, a community activist in East Point. Knight said her husband is a disabled Army veteran who would use the VA clinic at Fort McPherson. “If they go off and fight for this country so that we can have our freedom, than we owe that to them."

The VA’s plans dovetail nicely with other proposals to convert parts of the post into a science and technology park, houses, stores and green space, said Jack Sprott, executive director of the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority. The authority – created by the state to redevelop the post-- hopes to finish negotiating with the Army and acquire the property by April. It is drafting a request for qualifications to hire a master developer for the project now. Full build-out of the project could take 25 to 30 years, Sprott said.

“We are looking for private investment out there,” Sprott said. “We want to have taxpaying businesses out there. We are trying to create jobs.”

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