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Manatee County seeks 'leverage' with second option to put homeless veterans in houses

Bradenton Herald - 9/22/2023

Sep. 22—BRADENTON — After putting one housing complex on hold, Manatee County officials are considering a different plan to provide for homeless veterans.

In August, board members of the Manatee County Commission expressed concerns about a nationwide nonprofit that offered to build and operate a veteran housing facility, but they didn't reject it. Last week, they voted to begin exploring a new concept to provide former members of the military with homes.

Commissioner Jason Bearden unveiled his proposal to build a memorial park and a village of tiny homes for veterans on a vacant 24-acre lot during a recent public meeting. He pitched the project as an alternative to the first project, citing its proximity to job opportunities, a partnership with a well-known service provider and a lower cost to taxpayers.

"We're in the beginning stages of this, but we definitely would be looking at providing those wraparound services for these veterans," said Bearden, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

According to a presentation from county staff, the latest location to provide a safe place for unhoused veterans would be a county-owned property at 5431 Buckeye Road, Palmetto.

"What's great about this property is we'll have the ability to grow based on what the need is," Bearden said in an interview with the Bradenton Herald. "As conservatives, we don't need to do something big if we don't even know what the need is."

Bearden hopes to partner with St. Vincent de Paul to provide helpful services to veterans living in the village. The organization estimates that there are roughly 50 homeless veterans in Manatee County.

A cost estimate for Bearden's proposal has not been determined.

Second option for veteran housing

Staff members said they drew inspiration from Veteran Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 U.S. 301 N., Tampa, which includes 14 war memorials to past military engagements such as the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom and World Wars I and II. The park also features walking trails, picnic pavilions and a veterans resource center.

In addition to a park area, Bearden envisions a neighborhood of tiny homes that range between 400 and 600 square feet. The homes could be tailor-made to fit the needs of certain disabled veterans, he explained.

As of Thursday evening, it is unclear where county officials stand on approving the first proposed veteran housing facility.

Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which has similar veteran housing complexes in other states, earned unanimous support from the board in April.

But as commissioners considered whether to donate the land at 4413 66th St. W., Bradenton, which is valued at roughly $6 million, they declined to make a final decision. Instead, Commissioner Van Ostenbridge said he wanted to hear from the public and called a town hall meeting to discuss the plan.

"It doesn't mean I'm a 'no' on the other project, though, just so we're clear," Van Ostenbridge said at a recent meeting. "I'm not bailing on Tunnel to Towers at this point by any means."

Cortez Road project still in play

County officials say negotiations with Tunnel to Towers are ongoing, but it is unclear when the board will vote on a land transfer contract.

Bearden suggested that he has been unhappy with those contract talks and said a second option puts the county in a better position to negotiate.

"I just want to make sure whatever decision we make, we're doing our due diligence for the taxpayers, period. That's what we're doing," Bearden said. "You always have leverage when you have options."

Commissioners voted to explore Bearden's idea, but some said they wanted to iron out the details, such as which agencies would run the housing or provide wraparound services.

"I love the idea," said Commissioner Amanda Ballard. "I think it's great, but I think we've got a lot of exciting things to find out as we move along."

Unlike Tunnel to Towers' earlier proposal, Bearden said this complex could be used to provide homes for women and children. Tunnel to Towers originally told the board that its 120-unit complex would only be for single men.

"Women veterans deserve the same equal opportunities," said Commissioner Mike Rahn, who is also a Marine Corps. veteran. "We need to give all our veterans the opportunity to have great housing to put their lives back together and become active members of society."

Plans change for homeless veterans

In January 2022, the Manatee County Commission came up with a plan to remodel the Old Jail that is attached to the Manatee County Judicial Center in downtown Bradenton. Commissioners originally pledged to put $15 million toward remodeling the facility to serve unhoused veterans with housing, mental health and employment resources.

But that plan fell through after an assessment of the building revealed extraordinary costs to make the project work. Earlier this year, the board voted to demolish that building instead.

Commissioner George Kruse has worked closely with Tunnel to Towers to secure the deal to build attainable housing on Bradenton'sCortez Road. Speaking with the Bradenton Herald, he said he supports Bearden's plan, as long as it's in addition to the Tunnel to Towers proposal.

"Tunnel to Towers is a far superior project in every way, shape or form," Kruse said. "This has been a long process and it's a great project. This is one of the most reputable nonprofits in the country."

Speaking during public comment at a recent meeting, Bradenton resident Sue Mays also said she prefers the Tunnel to Towers project, noting that the site on Buckeye Road is too far away from other county services.

"The area, I don't think it's going to be helpful for them," Mays said. "They are way out from the community. I don't think the location is good to put little homes there."

The board is expected to continue discussing the Buckeye Road veteran housing project during its next public meeting, which begins Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Manatee County Administration Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.


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