A historical marker currently is planted at the site to become Liberty Campus. First phases of the historical rehab project will feature repurposed housing targeting veterans, their families and employer-sponsored housing for workers. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
GRAND ISLAND — For 130 years, the sprawling campus with its own lake, majestic front lawn and patriotic street names reigned as the State of Nebraska’s longest-standing veterans home.
That is, until four years ago, when state officials carried out a locally unpopular move and relocated the vet services to a neighboring city, rendering eight connected buildings obsolete.
Now, about 45 core acres, which recently were designated as historic, are getting a projected $50 million transformation.
Developer White Lotus Group is to launch construction this month at what will become Liberty Campus — an example of one Nebraska city’s efforts to help counter a statewide affordable housing gap that officials have labeled a crisis.
The early phases of repurposed building space are to create affordably priced dwellings for low-income veterans and their families, seniors and for new workers of area businesses.
An overarching goal, in addition to helping fill housing demand, is to preserve historical elements and pay homage to the population they represent, said White Lotus development manager Alex Bullington.
‘Real deep connection’
As a Grand Island native, whose high school marching band led parades through the campus, playing military fighting songs for the vets, Bullington is well aware of both sweet nostalgia and resentful emotions the campus evokes.
“There’s just a lot of history there, and a real deep connection felt by a large part of the city,” said Bullington.
He said many in his hometown of about 54,000 had a family member or friend who lived or had an attachment to the former vets home.
“Most everyone has driven by and seen the fountain, flag poles and at least knew the lake was back there. It would have been a shame if it was torn down.”
Liberty marks a comeback of sorts after the decade-old slap felt when then-Gov. Dave Heineman’s administration announced that Kearney would be the home of the new Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home, defeating Grand Island and North Platte in a bidding process to replace the state’s oldest veterans home.
“That was such an ouch for Grand Island,” said Cindy Johnson, president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce. The annual economic impact of the facilities was estimated a decade ago to be about $30 million. “We were stunned.”
Grand Island since then has converted about 80 acres of the original 640 acres of dedicated veterans land into a new city sports complex. Another swath that has served as a cemetery would get an $8 million lift under a measure introduced this year by State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island.
White Lotus’ plan to preserve the core buildings on campus, while creating innovative housing options, was a reason it stood out, city leaders said. Those eight key structures contain about 200,000 square feet of building space.
The Omaha-based developer has engaged other partners, including local entities such as Chief Industries, to help redevelop the campus on behalf of owner H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, Love for People), a charitable foundation affiliated with White Lotus.
Proposals were presented around the time Grand Island had finished an extensive five-year housing study in 2019. That report projected that, by 2024, the growing city would need 1,361 more housing units — a combination of owner, rental and rehabbed dwellings, at a projected cost of $382 million.
Since 2019 to the start of this year, 688 permits to build residential units have been approved.
“So we’re running behind,” said regional planning director Chad Nabity.
Mary Berlie, who heads the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp., considers Liberty a piece in solving the city’s “housing puzzle.”
She noted a survey in the housing study that showed 48% of respondents saying they would consider moving away for affordable housing.
She is eager to see how “out-of-the-box” ideas such as the worker housing part of the Liberty campus will affect employer recruitment.
Older veterans get first shot
First up at the complex is renovation of the Anderson and Pershing buildings. Asbestos removal is to begin this month. Older veterans with low incomes are to get first dibs on that initial wave of 48 rental units.
Next, in the World War II Memorial and Administration Buildings, will come at least 100 units of what the development team calls workforce, or employer-sponsored, housing. Under that initiative, local employers will lease a cluster of apartments and, in turn, rent them to new recruits.
Bullington said employers with whom he has spoken are eager to have a ready supply of apartments at their fingertips to offer new hires.
“They tell me that they offer jobs to people, but houses aren’t available so they end up losing them,” he said.
Another phase, still being refined, calls for construction of townhomes. The homes would rise on some of the vacant land and sell at market rate prices. “We’re trying to touch almost every age group,” Bullington said
Additional civic and commercial uses — perhaps a college culinary program in the former kitchen and offices for professional services — eventually could be incorporated into the campus.
Much of Liberty’s funding is to come from state and federal historic and low income housing tax credits, some administered through the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. About $700,000 would come from public tax-increment financing, Bullington said.
Early phases are projected to cost about $14 million, according to the developer’s proposal, with a total investment estimated at $50 million.
Johnson, from the chamber, looks forward to the revival. She sees the open space on the dormant campus as ripe for interesting economic development, too.
“Could there be a community garden?” she asked. “We’ve talked about our community’s need for another swimming pool.”
While the relocation of the veterans home and services was a blow, Berlie and others said that new opportunities are helping to fill the physical gap and grow the state’s fourth largest city.
The sports complex built in recent years on part of the old veterans property has become a popular spot. There’s talk of an amphitheater.
A CHI Health Center is being developed on 13 acres adjacent to Liberty.
“Things don’t happen overnight,” said Berlie. “It is definitely a marathon.”
The first resident of the Nebraska Soldiers and Sailors House, Oliver P. Duncan, was greeted in 1888 by a four-story, Victorian-style mansion on a vast 640-acre site.
Local citizens pitched in to help buy the land after state lawmakers in 1887 passed Legislative Bill 247 to establish a vets care center.
Most of the property served as farmland that helped sustain the institution, while another piece was set aside for a cemetery.
Within a decade, the area was producing ample crops, including corn, oats, potatoes, turnips and alfalfa. Animals shared the grounds, too.
Reports in 1898 said that more than 120 cattle, 65 hogs, 35 dairy cows, eight work horses and chickens helped feed the veterans and fuel the farming operation, according to research that two years ago landed the veterans home a spot on the U.S. Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
Much changed in the decades since Duncan, a Civil War vet, moved there.
The original brick-and-stone structure, for example, was demolished shortly after the Art Deco-inspired Administration Building was built in 1931.
Between 1887 and 1973, the historical nomination said, the campus that came to be known as the Grand Island Veterans Home grew to include eight major buildings connected by enclosed corridors.
A fishing pond, still there today, and picnic area offered recreational outlets.
By 1945, the nomination said, 118 vets and 100 widows were at the home. Cottages had been built for families.
In 2013, then-Gov. Dave Heineman announced that a more modern veterans home would be built to serve the medical and care needs of vets in central Nebraska. (By then, other state-administered regional veterans homes had been established in Scottsbluff, Norfolk and Bellevue.)
To the chagrin of Grand Island, neighboring Kearney won the bidding process for the new facilities.
And in January 2019, 92 vets were moved to the newly constructed Central Nebraska Veterans Home in Kearney — saluted on their way out by flag-bearing Patriot Guard Riders.
The Nebraska Historic Resources Group wrote the federal historic nomination to cover the core campus of about 45 acres where the mass of buildings rose. The designation opened the door to additional funding sources that will help with the planned restoration and repurposing of the old veterans home, led by Omaha-based developer White Lotus Group.
(The remainder of the original 640 acres was excluded, HRG said, as it encompasses the cemetery and former agricultural land that in recent years has been developed into city soccer fields, baseball fields, pickleball courts, a splash pad and more.)
Said the historic nomination: “The campus represents the physical manifestation of the state’s commitment to provide medical care to veterans from the Civil War through the current day.”
— Cindy Gonzalez, Nebraska Examiner
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