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LawCo officials respond to VA plan

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Lawrence County Commission has made a formal response to a proposal to build a new clinic for veterans in Springfield.

Seventh District Congressman Billy Long backed the $6.5 million plan, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs Strategic Capital Investment Program, which calls for replacing the clinic in Mt. Vernon.

Presiding Lawrence County Commissioner Sam Goodman, Eastern Commissioner Joe Ruscha and Western Commissioner Rodney Barnes questioned the value and impact of the proposal.

"We look with great trepidation at the possibility of the Gene Taylor Veterans' Clinic in Mt. Vernon being relocated to Springfield," the commissioners said. "The campus of the Missouri Rehabilitation Center/Gene Taylor Veterans Clinic is the biggest single employer in both the city of Mt. Vernon and Lawrence County. The loss of that number of jobs from a city and county with a rather small industrial base would be catastrophic."

The commissioners said it would be more practical and cost effective to build in Mt. Vernon than in Springfield, considering the cost of land. They said the centralized location between Joplin and Springfield on Interstate 44 provides more access than would be gained by moving the facility to Springfield.

According to the proposal, the Mt. Vernon facility is located within a 30-minute drive for approximately 17,000 veterans. A Springfield location is estimated to be within that radius for nearly 24,000 veterans.

The county commissioners disputed the figures, particularly because of the opening of a facility in Branson in 2008.

"Although Representative Long says he knows of no plan to close the Gene Taylor Veterans' Clinic in Mt. Vernon, it would be either naive or impractical to believe that such closing would not occur given the present economic landscape," the county commissioners said.

"One would also have to wonder what the true motivation is for moving the clinic to Springfield," the commissioners continued. "Lawrence County is a rural county with a much smaller population and voter base, but it would suffer a great deal more from the loss than Greene County would gain from the move. Further, the likelihood of the campus of the Missouri Rehabilitation Center closing would increase considerably with the loss of the Veterans' Clinic, thereby compounding the effect of the loss."

A rural area like Lawrence County, the commissioners said, relies on a small number of employers to provide the bulk of the jobs. Springfield, as the economic hub of the Seventh Congressional District, has a much different employment structure.

"It would behoove Representative Long to reconsider his support of this move if he really cares about the best interest of his constituents throughout the district," the commissioners concluded.

Projections call for the new clinic to open in the fall of 2014.

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