Nebraska officials are moving forward with plans to build a new veterans' home in Kearney, but design and construction work won't begin until federal funding is approved.
State officials held a meeting this week with 26 different architectural and engineering firms that are interested in the project. The state issued two formal requests — one on Nov. 11 and one on Monday — for a contractor to help design and construct the $121 million facility.
The state could select a firm by late December, but won't formally hire one until officials are certain that the project will receive federal funding, said Gerry Oligmueller, acting director of the Department of Administrative Services.
"We have to be in a position to engage the design consultants once the project's been approved by the federal government," Oligmueller said. "We have to be ready to go, is what it boils down to."
The decision to build the home in Kearney faces opposition from many residents in Grand Island, where it's been located for 126 years. Nebraska officials awarded the veterans home project to Kearney in July.
Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings and North Platte all competed for the project to replace the outdated, 225-bed Grand Island facility. The current home has about 375 employees, and a new facility is expected to generate millions in fresh economic activity.
The state sent its proposal to Washington in August, asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to pay 65 percent of the cost.
In September, a Grand Island-based veterans' service officer sent a letter to the department, urging it to withhold funding on the Kearney project until further study was completed. Donald Shuda said renovations could help the home stay in Grand Island, an argument rejected by state officials. Gov. Dave Heineman said the mixed signals could jeopardize federal funding for the project.
Darren Robinson, president of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County, said Kearney-area officials already have started work on roads and other infrastructure to make way for the veterans' home. In October, development began with a $430,000 roadway extension near the project's planned site.
Kearney city officials have agreed to commit $8.5 million in direct funding and utility cost reductions for the project. The commitment came on top of $1 million approved by Buffalo County officials, $100,000 from an economic development group, and $500,000 promised by a veterans' memorial committee.
"Nebraska's project is shovel ready, pending federal approval," Robinson said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it will respect Heineman's right to choose the facility's location, as long as the state can demonstrate that a new facility will serve the current veteran population's needs while meeting VA standards.