Officials worry about fate of VA buildings

What will happen to the historic buildings? Who will pay to clean up the asbestos and lead paint?

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The 28 buildings on the grounds of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center are a historic boon and financial bane.

Dating back to the cavalry days of Fort Walla Walla, the buildings are part of a celebrated piece of the community's history.

But they are old, laden with lead paint and asbestos problems that are only the beginning of a list of setbacks at the VA campus.

As part of its overhaul, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is hoping to reduce the estimated $1 million it spends daily nationwide maintaining underused facilities.

To operate more efficiently here, the government can either spend millions of dollars updating the facilities or close the sprawling 84-acre campus. A federal commission is recommending the latter.

But Walla Walla officials worry if the VA abandons the campus, the historic buildings may not get the care they need.

``There's so many issues from the ground up,'' said Walla Walla City Manager Duane Cole. ``The facilities aren't what they should be.''

An assessment of the buildings, constructed between 1858 and 1947, reveals major infrastructure problems. According to VA information, steam, plumbing and electrical work at the medical unit have not had major upgrades in more than 30 years. There is no central air, so multiple air conditioners are used throughout the building. The heating system relies on steam.

The 1906 building that houses mental health and psychiatry programs is just as bad. Because the building, one of two old cavalry troop barracks, is made partially of wood, it has a life span of only 100 years. As with all the other buildings on campus, it also contains lead and asbestos. Cost of correcting its deficiencies is estimated by the VA at $7.12 million.

If the VA abandons the campus, local governments may be able to negotiate with the federal government to take over ownership of the land and buildings _ 15 of which are on the National Historic Register.

But for what purpose is unknown. Although the buildings have a distinct historic significance to the community, Cole said they won't have commercial value unless they are cleaned up and meet seismic code.

But getting money from the federal government to do that _ or to demolish them _ can take years.

The Port of Walla Walla knows that.

In the early 1990s, the U.S.

Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to move downtown from its 33-building campus at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

With the move, the World-War-II-era buildings _ dilapidated and riddled with asbestos and fire and safety deficiencies _ would revert to Port property.

The Corps opened at its new downtown headquarters in 1995. But the old buildings didn't come down until 2000, and only after years of lobbying by the Port to secure $4.6 million in federal funding.

Walla Walla officials say they have no idea how long it could take for any work to get done on the VA campus.

They say conditions there are a direct result of the investments made over the years.

Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla, said a major construction project has not taken place at the campus in more than three decades.

``The VA has not done a good job maintaining the buildings out there,'' he said.

``We need to save those, and the VA isn't doing it.''The site has been of federal significance since 1858. In 1921, the government released the Fort Walla Walla property to the Public Health Service for development of a medical center for veterans.

The VA medical center has lease agreements for use of property with Little League baseball, youth football, the Walla Walla School District and a credit union.

The Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center was recognized by the VA with the Robert W. Carey Quality Award in 1998 and 2001. The award recognizes leadership in providing quality care. It is named for the late director of the VA Regional Office and Insurance Center in Philadelphia. He led his office in initiating a total-quality management approach to serving veterans and their families. Carey died in 1990.

THE CARES COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION

The Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services commission recommends:

  • Closure of Walla Walla's VA hospital and where appropriate contracting for acute inpatient medicine and psychiatry care and nursing home care in the Walla Walla geographic area.
  • Outpatient services would be maintained and moved off the VA campus after inpatient services are relocated.
  • Before action takes place, the VA must ensure there are viable alternatives in the community and that it has quality criteria for procedures for contracting and monitoring service delivery, as well as the availability of trained staff to negotiate cost-effective contracts.

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