Future of Veterans Affairs clinic in Tulare unsure after special meeting

Tulare Local Health Care District holds special meeting to discuss possibility of using Evolutions Fitness and Wellness Center as bait to keep the VA’s interest

TULARE – While Tulare gym goers got their evening workouts in at Tulare’s Evolutions Fitness and Wellness Center, the Tulare Health Care District board gathered in a small meeting room tucked away in the same building to discuss the possibility of closing part or all of the gym to make way for a Veterans Affairs clinic.

The board had collectively decided against offering up the gym as a site for the VA clinic at a previous board meeting. So it caught some off guard, including Evolutions executive director Jayne Presnell, when they held a special meeting on July 14 to revisit the matter.

“It seems like everything that involves us has always been a surprise. I think part of the confusion is that nobody really knows what you’re talking about,” Presnell said. “I’ve heard everything on the first floor will be the VA clinic. Does that include our locker rooms? The pools? Group rooms? What does that include? Nobody knows. The rumors are rampant, I had staff in and out of my office today asking, ‘what’s going on? Should we look for other jobs? Are they taking away Evolutions?’ I didn’t have any answers.”

Presnell said she doesn’t see the transparency that the board had pledged, a board that has been plagued with over 15 years of failings that led to a devastating bankruptcy, and the seemingly never-ending hospital tower construction project. Tulare resident Jennifer Burcham said she spent all day prior to the meeting trying to educate herself on the situation to no end.

“There were no minutes or anything that I could refer back to see what was said,” Burcham said. “When I heard about it, trying to find any information to educate myself on what’s taking place was not out there on the website.”

Board member Xavier Avila responded to the comments on the board’s supposed lack of transparency, and said any prior conversations about Evolutions and the VA were done in open session. The board does not offer recordings of their meetings on the district’s website.

Evolutions might have closed permanently in 2017 during the financial mismanagement of the hospital district, if not for a group of local citizens forming a nonprofit company to keep it pumping. As the district was trying to get out from under the weight of Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), whose executives now face more than 40 felony charges of embezzlement and other white collar crimes. Paul Atlas, J. Michael Lane and Patricia Hitlin formed Evo Management Company, LLC to keep Tulare’s favorite gym from closing to the public while the hospital was going through bankruptcy. The nonprofit worked with other local entities, including the Tulare Industry Site Development Foundation, Tulare Local Development Company and Tulare Hospital Foundation, to raise $150,000 to get the facility running again.

At the July 14 meeting, Atlas expressed his distaste to the board considering offering up Evolutions after all the hard work to keep the gym open, including the tough closures and revenue losses during the dark days of the pandemic.

“We have worked for three-and-a-half years to make this thing a viable gym,” Atlas said. “To have anybody come in here and want to take it away from this group that has made this thing go, to put it into something else is ludicrous.”

After residents aired out their grievances about the board’s behavior, it became more clear that for some board members, the gym was to be offered only as bait to keep the VA’s interest in Tulare while the hospital district and the city continued to look for a suitable location.

“Ultimately, the idea of how we got to this point was we’ve got to keep the VA interested,” Avila said, who spoke adamantly about the need to provide more services for veterans. “What we were faced with last meeting was telling the VA, ‘No, thank you.’ That meant Tulare was done, like we’re out of the running.”

Tulare City Council member Steve Harrell—who was forced to resign from the hospital board upon threat of litigation over serving both the council and the board—attended the July 14 meeting. Despite his declaration as a private citizen, the board asked him questions about the VA’s communication with the city of Tulare, to which he filled them in on the less-than-stellar connection. Avila followed with more rationale for the special meeting.

“They’re not returning the city’s calls, but they’re talking to Sandra [hospital district CEO] for some reason. They look at us as the responsible party, and they’re talking to us,” Avila said. “Last board meeting, that vote was just to move it forward, to keep the hope alive, hoping that maybe they’ll change their mind, maybe they will find another building instead of this. But it’s pretty hard just to tell them, ‘No, no thank you. We’re not interested. We’re keeping our gym.’”

Attending the meeting via Zoom, Robert Pardo of Catalyst Capital—a private equity investment firm specializing in building structures for the federal government working with the hospital district—urged attendees to understand that offering up the gym could merely be a formality to “get the process started” while the board continued to find a suitable location for the VA clinic.

“Our intention is just to have a property to be able to show the VA so they start the process,” Pardo said.

The VA is looking for a 20,000 to 25,000 square-foot building to renovate into a clinic. Pardo said the VA has made it clear new builds are not an option, and the deadline for applying with a potential site for review was July 16.

The board then convened to closed session after public comment and preliminary discussion. It is worth noting that the language used to describe the closed session item on the special meeting agenda is identical to that of a closed session item from the previous June 23 board meeting, despite Avila’s claim that everything related to Evolutions and the VA had been discussed in open session.

Upon returning from closed session, board member Phil Smith addressed the representatives from Catalyst Capital.

“What we’re looking at following review of your organization is potentially utilizing your services on a new facility for the VA within our community,” Smith said. “But there’s consensus among this body that it not be this gym.”

Steven Cody of Catalyst Capital said they remain interested in working with the hospital district, but due to the July 16 deadline the best bet is now to hope for a deadline extension from the VA, which has happened before. As of press time, it is unclear if the VA issued a deadline extension.

Cody then asked the board if anyone was familiar with the property at 1043 E. Bardsley Ave. in Tulare, as it would be an ideal site for the VA clinic, but one of the four property owners refused to sign on and communications were dropped. The room responded saying it was the R-N Market, and Smith said the board would see if they could make contact with the property owners to open a line of communication.

Board member Smith moved to not approve the memorandum of understanding with Catalyst Capital related to Evolutions and the lease proposal. The motion passed unanimously.

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