VA age seen as strong point

Some of the buildings on the sprawling campus date to before the Civil War

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``The number of buildings in Washington state dating pre-Civil War era can be counted on two hands, and Walla Walla has five of them.''

MICHAEL SULLIVAN

One of the very things that may be hampering efficiency at Walla Walla's veterans hospital could be used to help leverage some support for it, consultants say.

With 28 buildings on the 1858 property, the sprawling campus at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center may be seen as a financial drain on federal resources _ even though many veterans and hospital workers say the government hasn't invested in some of them for years.

But if some of the historic buildings and property were divested, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may have resources freed up to invest in the main hospital and its local services, say consultants with Buffalo Design Inc.

On Thursday, the Seattle-based firm presented its initial findings about the property and buildings at a meeting of the local Community Task Force, a group of veterans and government, business and education officials examining issues and services at the property.

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Last year the hospital was slated for changes under a recommendation by the federally appointed Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) Commission. As part of an overhaul of the VA's national health-care system, CARES' mission was to recommend changes that would realign veterans with health-care services.

As a result, the commission recommended contracting, where appropriate, for acute inpatient medicine and psychiatry and nursing home care in the Walla Walla area.

Outpatient services would be moved to an unspecified location after inpatient services were relocated.

Instead of implementing the recommendation, then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi ordered further study of Walla Walla's hospital and services. Along with 17 other facilities across the country, the Wainwright facility is being studied by consulting firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, which will make recommendations to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who will decide what happens.

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Meanwhile, the local Community Task Force has gathered its own data as an independent group. With the help of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the group secured $250,000 for the study of VA property and development of a master plan.

Thursday's meeting marked the first major report from Buffalo Design since it began studying the facility a few weeks ago.

Consultants emphasized the mission to maintain health care and services, but said the VA may be convinced to stay if its load were lighter.

``These are the kinds of resources that shouldn't be solely the responsibility of the VA to have to handle,'' said Michael Sullivan, a historian from Artifacts Consulting working with Buffalo Design.

``Maybe if there's a larger audience who cares about this place for historical connections...I think it strengthens our case overall.''Sullivan said even Walla Walla may not be fully aware of the significance of some of the buildings.

``The number of buildings in Washington state dating pre-Civil War era can be counted on two hands, and Walla Walla has five of them,'' he said.

The buildings date back to the earliest period of contact between the pioneers and the American Indians here.

``This is the first chapter.

This is the `In the beginning...' phase of Washington history,'' Sullivan said.

``This may be the most important hidden historic place in the Northwest.''Findings by Sullivan, and Chris Carlson and Lisa Roberts, both of Buffalo Design, have come from research of the property and interviews with more than 30 groups and individuals that use the property. Some of those include veterans; city, county and Port of Walla Walla officials; members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Pacific Little League; the Walla Walla Housing Authority; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The study is still in its infancy, so who would take on the buildings and how has not been discussed. But one thing Sullivan said is sure: The federal government can not willfully destroy or erase the buildings _ which he described as cultural resources _ without mitigation.

As Buffalo Design continues, it will develop a range of site development and land-use options. Carlson said five or six options are expected.

All will include as their top planning principle keeping the VA medical center at its existing site.

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