FRANKFORT – It seemed like a routine bill signing, but for Danny Young and Ray Biggerstaff it was anything but.
Gov. Andy Beshear signed House Bill 24 – allocating $2.5 million in state funds for design and preconstruction of a veterans nursing home planned for Bowling Green – on Tuesday in the state Capitol, and no one was happier than Biggerstaff and Young, a pair of U.S. Army veterans who have waged a yearslong battle to get the nursing home advanced to this point.
“I’m gonna do a dance,” said Young, an 81-year-old retired colonel who taught in the Junior ROTC program at Warren Central High School for 10 years. “We started out with ideas written in pencil on a piece of paper. We had no road map to go on. We developed information and tried to sell the idea to the politicians in Frankfort.”
Biggerstaff said the process of trying to get a veterans nursing home in Bowling Green started around 2012.
“It was a long, arduous process,” said Biggerstaff, a former Army medic and trainer who served in Vietnam. “We had to get support from our representatives and our local authorities.”
The work paid off Tuesday. Although the nursing home won’t be going up right away on the 20-acre site being donated in the Kentucky Transpark, the governor’s signature on the bill was the most significant progress yet on the project.
The $2.5 million going toward design and site preparation was needed in order to get funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build what is proposed as a 90-bed, $30 million facility.
State Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, sponsored HB 24 and said it was important to move this initial funding forward in order to get the $19.5 million in federal dollars and release the $10.5 million in state bond funding that was passed in 2017.
Meredith said a boost in funding for veterans’ projects at the federal level has helped move the Bowling Green project into the top 10 on the feds’ list of potential veterans nursing homes.
“I was afraid we’d get a federal funding letter and not be able to act on it,” Meredith said. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t get in that position.”
Like Meredith, State Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said getting HB 24 passed was a high priority in this legislative session. He helped shepherd a bill that passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously.
“It has been a long journey to get to this point,” Wilson said. “With potential approval at the federal level expected, it was necessary to get the preparatory work done.”
Young, who sported a U.S. Army jacket and a Vietnam Veterans hat Tuesday, credited Meredith, Wilson and southcentral Kentucky’s other state legislators for moving the project forward; but he said a man who wasn’t present Tuesday may have played the biggest role.
Col. Robert Spiller, who died in January 2018, was among the biggest advocates for a veterans nursing home in Bowling Green.
“Robert Spiller was the spirit behind the project,” Young said.
Spiller’s son, Bob Spiller, was on hand for the bill signing and said the progress toward a nursing home would have pleased his father, a longtime local philanthropist.
“He would be elated,” said Bob Spiller, himself an Army veteran who now lives in Indiana. “He said he had one last thing to accomplish, and that was getting a veterans nursing home in Bowling Green. For years, he drove veterans from Bowling Green to the VA Hospital in Nashville.”
Lt. Col. Keith Jackson, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, said a groundbreaking for the veterans nursing home to be built near the Alpla plant in the transpark could be held within a year.
Meredith would like to see it open in “two or three years”, even if it might need to be scaled back some from the original plan.
“It’s a $30 million facility,” he said. “In today’s dollars, that might not be 90 beds. We’ll build as much as we can build, maybe 70 or 75 beds, and look at expanding in the future.”
The Bowling Green facility will be Kentucky’s fifth veterans nursing home, joining locations in Hazard, Wilmore, Hanson and Radcliff.
Beshear said he was glad that HB 24 was among the first bills he signed this year.
“I can’t imagine a better bill to be among the first pieces of legislation to pass in this session,” he said. “Our veterans are heroes to all Kentuckians. This will show our appreciation for their sacrifice.”