Tulare hospital district renews talks for VA facility

Tulare Local Health Care District takes second crack at Veterans Affairs facility; VA, Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) silent on community questions about site selection

TULARE – Securing a Veterans Affairs facility in Tulare had been a hot ticket item over the summer for the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD), drawing the public into the district’s small board room tucked away at Evolutions Fitness Center, concerned the very same building might be closed to make way for the VA.

Back in July, the board quashed the idea of leasing Evolutions to the VA at the cost of their gym, consequently costing the city further consideration for a VA site, as the district could not secure any other suitable property by the deadline. The VA has since renewed its solicitation for lease proposals in Tulare and Visalia with offers due by Dec. 14, and the hospital district is again gunning for a site.

At the Oct. 27 TLHCD meeting, Board member Xavier Avila—who has spoken adamantly in favor of securing a VA facility in Tulare—attempted to clear the air on the alleged VA-or-gym scenario in front of a crowd of concerned citizens, alarmed by the VA site tour that took place the week before who in-large want to provide for the region’s veterans but not at the cost of Tulare’s beloved gym.

“It’s not the veterans or the gym, it’s both,” Avila said, alluding to the possibility that both the gym and the VA facility can coexist at Evolutions. “It has never been my idea that we’re going to kick the gym goers out and bring in the veterans.

Avila went on to point out that the gym is now a financial drain on the district, and while the district is doing what they can to get membership back up and make the gym profitable, getting the VA in the picture could be a win-win for a district in need of $70 million to fulfill their promise to the community of completing the hospital tower over 15-years in the making.

“You’re looking at improving the financial picture of this building and the hospital district,” Avila said, “you’re looking at quadrupling the services for Veterans [in Tulare].”

While Avila had his point of view, Board President Kevin Northcraft was in disagreement, as board members can be.

“I disagree with much of what you said,” Northcraft said to Avila. “One thing you know about this board, it is not a rubber stamp board like our predecessors.”

When Paul Atlas—part owner of Evo Management Company, LLC, formed to keep Tulare’s favorite gym from closing to the public while the hospital district was going through bankruptcy—asked for an absolute from the board that “there is no chance the [VA] will utilize this property, that it will remain a gym that this community needs desperately,” Northcraft could not give him one.

“It would take three votes for the board to make that change, and at this point, they’ve never voted for that,” Northcraft said.

So why has it been so hard for a community that wants to serve its veterans to find a suitable site that doesn’t come at the potential cost or diminishing of a pillar of their community in the gym at Evolutions? The prickly process of the federal government.

The VA’s rules for an acceptable property in this instance are particularly narrow: between 21,180 and 23,298 square feet of rentable office space in an already-existing structure with at least 85 parking spaces.

“For some reason, this particular division of [the VA]—others are free to build new facilities, this one doesn’t want to,” Northcraft said.

Northcraft said offering the gym as a potential site has been a way to get their foot in the door with the VA in order to even have a seat at the table for a conversation about alternate sites. The only other suitable site was an R-N Market in town, and the district was unable to get all of the property owners on board for a potential lease.

Atlas said the process “makes it very difficult for me to believe that the federal government has any common sense,” to which the tension in the room eased with a low chuckle from the crowd. Board member Phil Smith encouraged the crowd of concerned Tulare residents to contact their federal representative.

“In my opinion as a former construction loan officer and a banker, [the VA’s proposal] is completely unrealistic. You are all correct. You can build it from scratch cheaper than a remodel,” Smith said. “Lord knows we’ve got enough infill land here in town. Our congressional representative should be representing us with regard to federal affairs.”

The VA did not respond to specific questions about the lease solicitation process from The Sun-Gazette. Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a born-and-raised Tulare dairy farmer turned politician, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Sun-Gazette about helping his constituents with their VA predicament in Tulare.

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