By William Petroski, Des Moines (Iowa) Register
DES MOINES, Iowa — A vacant former veterans hospital would be converted into a national center for homeless veterans under a proposal being unveiled today by a nonprofit Iowa group.
The facility in Knoxville, which has a population of 7,731 about 35 miles southeast of Des Moines, would house at least 400 homeless veterans, and possibly hundreds more, under plans developed by a group headed by Bob Krause of Fairfield, a retired Army Reserve officer and former head of the Iowa chapter of the Reserve Officers Association.
“The most recent estimate that I have seen is that at least 126,000 U.S. military veterans go to sleep without a home every night,” Krause said Wednesday. “Nationally, there is a huge shortage of beds for homeless veterans.”
The proposed National Veterans Recovery Center would draw homeless veterans nationwide. The veterans would be provided two years of federally subsidized treatment and education programs to rehabilitate them, said Krause, who unsuccessfully sought the Iowa Democratic Party’s U.S. Senate nomination in the June primary.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has announced its intention to lease the former Knoxville hospital for up to 75 years to an operation that would provide transitional or permanent housing for homeless veterans or those at risk of becoming homeless. The site, which once housed more than 1,000 patients, covers 163 acres and has 39 buildings.
The Veterans Administration currently operates a veterans’ medical clinic on the grounds, although there are plans to relocate it to another Knoxville site next year. The clinic employs 43 people, including some who split time between Knoxville and a Des Moines veterans medical facility.
Knoxville Mayor Donald Zouette said Wednesday that Krause has a great idea. But he wants to hear more details, such as how the center would be financed and what type of work force would be required.
If Krause’s plans are in order, “I am 100 percent behind him,” said Zouette, who served in the Air Force and the Army Reserve.
Lisa Christie, a spokeswoman for the Central Iowa Health Care System of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, said a public hearing has been scheduled Nov. 4 in Knoxville regarding the Veterans Administration’s lease proposal. She declined to comment on Krause’s plans and said federal officials haven’t set a timetable for making a decision.
James Washington, a businessman and president of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, said he has also established a group with plans to develop the former veterans’ hospital campus. He said he considers his investor group the front-runner to secure the federal government’s long-term lease, but he is definitely interested in working with Krause to have the homeless veterans center become a reality.
“I am highly inclined to work with Mr. Krause because this is an enormous campus,” Washington said. “So there is a potential for growth and working in unison with other developers that have some good ideas.”
Washington, who heads Knoxville Manufacturing, envisions developing the former hospital property with a mix of uses, including residential, industrial and commercial sites. He said a college has expressed interest in using several buildings.
“I think the job creation could be astronomical,” he said.
Patrick Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said that he supports the concept of finding a use for the vacant Knoxville veterans hospital, and that Krause has a good idea.
“This is well needed,” Palmersheim said. “It’s just too bad that it would be in Knoxville and not closer to Des Moines, where there are more opportunities, as far as employment. That is an issue.”