LORAIN — The Department of Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic could be returning to Lorain as soon as the end of next year.
At a public hearing Monday night, it was revealed Warrensville Heights real estate developer Mike Downing is planning to make 3120 Kolbe Road the new home for a 34,000-square-foot facility to house the VA clinic, which moved from its former home in the St. Joseph Community Center to a temporary location on Abbe Road in Sheffield at the end of 2015.
Initially, both members of Council and the public were skeptical about rezoning the six parcels, that actually sit along West Erie Avenue, from residential to business to allow for a medical facility because there wasn’t much information being given about the project.
“It’s a total lack of information, and I would have to vote no in the present condition this is in because we have nothing to go off of except it would be a medical office building,” Councilman Greg Argenti, I-4th Ward, said, noting no one from the project attended the Planning Commission meeting where the zoning change was recommended.
Resident Jim Mackert, whose home sits next to the property, said he, too, needed more information on the project before agreeing with the rezoning.
“We weren’t represented at the last meeting due to the fact we were sort of under sworn secrecy, so I apologize for not having any representation,” Downing said. “We are representing the VA, who is currently in Sheffield Village. What we’re presenting is a medical office campus anchored by the VA. It would serve the veterans of Lorain County and in some cases surrounding counties.”
Downing, who recently helped build the VA clinic in Willoughby as well as the one in downtown Cleveland, is no stranger to Lorain having led the project for the social security office in downtown Lorain several years ago.
Downing said the facility would retain about 50 jobs, paying $45,000 a year or higher, and creating a “significant payroll” for the city.
With the announcement the rezoning would be for a new clinic, which would see construction completed near the end of 2019, Argenti changed his tune.
“This is great information,” he said. “It’s good to know. With that information let’s move it forward.”
Mackert said he still had concerns and didn’t feel like he had all of the necessary information, but not because it was going to be a VA clinic.
“Certainly, we’re in favor of taking care of our veterans, and I wasn’t even opposed to a medical facility,” he said. “We were concerned with a buffer zone and how our property was going to be impacted, and we still don’t know that.”
Downing said there would definitely be some sort of buffer zone, but those plans hadn’t been finalized yet.
In a news release Monday night, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, said she “welcomed action by Lorain City Council” to rezone the 9.7 acres of land.
“This has been a years-long effort to secure this clinic to better serve the thousands of veterans in Lorain and the surrounding area,” she said. “We anticipate the selection of this particular site in Lorain to place the veterans’ outpatient clinic at the nexus of the area’s health care network. Adjacent to Mercy Health Center, Oak Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation, the community heliport, extended-care facilities and hospice, the proposed location sets up the VA to develop a truly full service, campus-like facility that meets the needs of our veterans into the future.”
Downing said also the VA selected the site from several across Lorain County but decided this was the one that worked the best.
“They like the fact that it’s across the street from Mercy Hospital,” he said. “They thought it was an easy landmark for their vets who have probably all been to Mercy Hospital for one reason or another. They like the topographical features so far as it’s all fairly flat. Some of the sites have low-lying parking or have parking on a hill, and vets in wheelchairs can’t necessarily maneuver that.”
Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the move is “good news” and the city is “ecstatic.”
“I remember talking with the VA secretary at the time when the clinic left Lorain and telling them how important this was for the city of Lorain and the veterans community,” he said. “I mean, that community in this town is second to none. This community time and time again takes care of its own, and it’s so nice for this area that it’s coming home, where the true need is. This is some of the better news we’ve gotten lately.”
Downing concurred with the mayor, saying Lorain and the surrounding area was “built by veterans by their own backs and their own hands,” and he’s seen how moving a VA clinic can affect a community.
“I just finished a VA clinic in Willoughby that had moved out of Painesville, and Painesville was heartbroken, but they didn’t have a site that worked for the VA,” he said. “It just didn’t work, and I think what you’ve seen in the last four or five years, the VA is realizing they’re not taking as good of care of vets as they could be, and these buildings are antiquated and the services aren’t as good so their putting the money where their mouth is in building new facilities.”
Councilwoman Mary Springowski, D-at large, said she knows there were a lot of concerns when the clinic left Lorain but “it’s very rare” that the city “can recapture a business that has left” so she hopes it’s a trend.
Downing did say the project is contingent on the rezoning of the property.
“It’s the old chicken or the egg,” he said. “Which comes first? But I cannot present this to the VA in its current zoning state. I need to have the zoning confirmed and changed so they can check the box that they have the proper zoning, so right now it’s not 100 percent certain that the VA’s going to go here.”
Ritenauer said the federal contracting process is not a simple one, though, and people should try to keep that in mind through this project.
“It’s a cumbersome, arduous, long, long-term process, and I think he’s telling us what he’s able to tell us but the bottom line without this rezoning, this isn’t even a consideration,” he said. “I think they are following federal protocol with a project of this nature.”
If Council does choose to rezone the land, Downing said there “is no guarantee” the federal government will choose it as the new site, but “the likelihood of them moving to the site is very high.”
Councilman Dennis Flores, D-2nd Ward, said he’s for the rezoning and wants to do so in order to “put the right cards” in Downing’s hands.
Janine Mackert, Jim’s wife, said she would like to see some sort of provisions in the rezoning that would revert the zoning back to residential should something fall through.
Downing said he would have no problem with special land-use provisions, and he doesn’t think it would deter the federal government “as long as it’s in black and white that they could build the clinic there.”
The VA clinic would be the first phase to the project with phase II being the addition of medical tenants, such as a medical supply company, and phase III including some sort of assisted living on the land, but that is only “casual conversation” and “nothing has been solidified.”
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