Idea that was originally portrayed as free could now cost county $6.5 million
A small army of veterans came up against some unexpected resistance this week when they confronted Alamance County’s elected leaders with a request on behalf of their less fortunate comrades.
The county’s board of commissioners ultimately took no action on this request, which called for a sizable pledge from the county’s cache of pandemic relief funds to establish a community of “tiny houses” for homeless vets.
Tammy Crawford, the county’s director of veterans services, formally presented this plan to the commissioners on Monday amid a packed house of former service members who came kitted out in the regalia of their respective veterans organizations.
During her pitch, Crawford asked the commissioners to set aside $6.5 million in federal pandemic relief funds to persuade a Kansas City organization to choose Alamance County for one of several “veterans communities” that it plans to set up across the U.S.
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Crawford also asked the board to chip in some vacant property that the county acquired along Graham-Hopedale Road when the Kernodle Clinic of Burlington donated an old medical office that has since been razed to the ground.
Crawford urged the commissioners not to dawdle too long over these asks if Alamance County is to have any chance of winning over the program’s organizers in Kansas City.
“We have to work fast,” she insisted, “because they’re going to choose the last three locations very soon.”
Crawford’s involvement in this particular program actually dates back to August when she and then-county manager Bryan Hagood accompanied commissioner Pam Thompson on a fact-finding mission to Kansas City, Missouri. The trio embarked on this venture in order to reconnoiter the nationally-renown Veterans Community Project – a “tiny home” development for homeless vets that also offers emergency assistance and “wrap-around support services” to discharged members of the military who struggle to readjust to civilian life.
Crawford and her traveling companions returned to Alamance County raving about this nonprofit initiative, which they urged other county officials to replicate closer to home. Their ambitions were given a boost by the project’s organizers who announced that they were scouting out sites across the U.S. to set up similar communities.
The prospect of a veterans community in Alamance County came up again in November when Hagood unveiled a list of potential outlays for the $32.9 million which the county had been allotted under the American Rescue Plan. Among the items at the top of the county manager’s slate was an $8 million allocation to build and operate a tiny home community for two years.
With all this advance publicity, Crawford appeared to assume there was no need for a lengthy recap of the Veterans Community Project when she appeared before the board of commissioners on Monday. Before she even laid out her request, the county’s director of the veterans services called in a succession of dignitaries to describe the plight of discharged service members and the potential value of a veterans community.
Among those who appeared on behalf of the project that evening were Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson; Ken Sellers, a Vietnam vet from Mebane who serves as a VFW district commander; and Jai Baker, a Gulf War veteran who now runs the Alamance County nonprofit Allied Churches.
Also in the line of fire that evening was Cory Spoor, a one-time aide to former Congressman Mark Walker who now works for a Charlotte-based organization called the Veterans Bridge Home. Spoor drew on his own experience as a former Marine to tell the commissioners just how hard it can be for a discharged service member even without the added strain of combat injuries or psychological trauma.
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Jai Baker, a Gulf War veteran who now runs the Alamance County nonprofit Allied Churches.
“Transitioning is rough,” he assured the county’s governing board. “When I went into the Marines, I was 18 years old, and I didn’t know another life…When that happens it doesn’t set you up for success…So, it is imperative that we make sure that veterans transition properly.”
Whatever Crawford’s intentions may have been, the accounts of Spoor and other veterans advocates didn’t seem to have the desired effect on John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. Paisley ultimately cut into Spoor’s oration and asked him, point blank, what he wanted from him and his colleagues. Paisley went on to conflate Spoor’s own organization with the Veterans Community Project and demanded to know what interest the commissioners have in funding a Charlotte-based group.
Paisley’s confusion, whether real or rhetorical, didn’t go over well with commissioner Thompson, who chided the board’s chairman for his apparent ignorance of the crusade she has been fighting for months.
“I got this in August,” she reminded the rest of the board. “I’ve talked about it at every meeting, and Bryan Hagood has told you about the money they’d need to start up.”
Paisley responded to Thompson’s dressing down by accusing her of misrepresenting the financial implications of the Veterans Community Project when she first pitched the idea to the commissioners.
“You campaigned on that you were going to bring this group in and it would not cost the county a penny,” he recalled. “I’m going to support your efforts,” he added. “But I cannot give all of the ARP money to your cause.”
Paisley’s reluctance to allot federal pandemic relief to Crawford’s initiative raised another issue for commissioner Craig Turner.
A Navy veteran who joined the board of commissioners in 2021, Turner acknowledged his frustration that the county has yet to come up with a clear plan to disburse its multimillion dollar cache of federal funds.
“We are in desperate need for a strategy to spend our funds, and I’ve been saying it for six months,” he told his fellow commissioners. “We need to have a strategy to make these tough decisions or we’re going to lose this opportunity.”
The commissioners didn’t come any closer to enunciating this strategy during their meeting on Monday. Nor did they offer any formal response to Crawford’s request on behalf of the Veterans Community Project.
The board’s lack of response was even more glaring in light of the remarks that one local veteran, Lonnie Workman, shared about the difficulties that former service members face as they try to navigate government bureaucracies.
“We have to start somewhere,” Workman told the commissioners as he spoke up from the back pew of the county’s meeting chamber. “You are our somewhere. And until you people take enough interest, we can’t get to the next level.”