February 5, 2015 [Brian Albrecht, The Plain Dealer]
The more than four-year effort to create a place where veterans and their families could stay for free while a vet is receiving medical treatment here, is rounding third and heading for home.
At least, “I hope so,” said Tom Sweeney, president of the Greater Cleveland Fisher House campaign.
The goal is to build a $6 million, 18-suite facility near the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in University Circle.
The house would become part of a national and international network of 64 such facilities partially funded and built by the 25-year-old, nonprofit Fisher House Foundation, of Rockville, Maryland.
Thus far the local campaign has raised $2.3 million of its $3 million goal. The Fisher House Foundation would match that $3 million amount.
Financial support for the local campaign has ranged from gifts from such corporate donors as Lincoln Electric, KeyBank and the Eaton Corp., to small fund-raisers held by veterans service organizations throughout the area.
Sweeney said the need for a Fisher House here is well established. He noted that, “people from all over America are sent to Cleveland” because of the services offered by the VA’s medical center here – the third largest in the nation — and through its partnerships with other local hospital systems.
Susan Fuehrer, director of the Cleveland VA Medical Center, said about 520 veterans are referred here each year from outside the area to take advantage of treatment in such areas as open heart surgery, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury and long-term care.
The VA has about 15-20 veterans or family members per day staying in a local hotel while a vet receives medical care.
“There is a demonstrated strong need for a Fisher House here, based on the number of vets and families who are here on any given day,” she said. “We have enough volume to satisfy two Fisher Houses.
“A Fisher House could be a huge benefit to veterans and their families, and a great thing for the city of Cleveland,” she added.
Rick DeChant, treasurer of the local campaign, remarked, “We have this great mosaic of care for veterans in Northeast Ohio. All it’s missing is one tile – a Fisher House.”
Putting that last tile in place has come down to site selection and a primary contender is a 2.5-acre mostly vacant lot on East 105th Street, between Lee and Orville avenues. The site is within walking distance of the VA medical center’s Wade Park campus.
The site is made up of several parcels owned by the city of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, and the Famicos Foundation (a nonprofit community development corporation).
All of those lots would have to be brought together in a single parcel and donated to the VA before a Fisher House could be constructed on the site.
“It’s all in friendly hands. All of us are working together to see that this happens,” said Gus Frangos, president of the Land Bank.
Frangos said there are no tax liabilities attached to the parcels, no zoning problems and no need for action by Cleveland City Council to combine and donate the parcels.
“The next step is for somebody from Washington (the VA), as well as a national Fisher House representative, to take a look at it one more time to make sure it’s a desirable site,” he added.
He noted that the facility would not only be a good addition to the neighborhood, but the area is good for a Fisher House, offering a variety of nearby University Circle attractions for Fisher House residents to visit.
Once the site is selected and donated, project permits and architectural renderings will go before the city’s planning commission, according to Frangos.
“Generally speaking those things should not be impediments,” he said. “Everybody is just very excited about this.”
Ward 9 City Councilman Kevin Conwell is also a big fan of the project, and said it could spark economic and commercial development in the neighborhood.
“Once I know the project is moving forward, I’ll sit down and talk to other developers,” he said. “This could be a great shot in the arm to stimulate the economy in that area.”
Derek Donovan, Fisher House Foundation vice president of programs and community relations, said the ball is now in the VA’s court.
“We’re working with the VA to make sure everything is acceptable to the VA,” he said. “At this point in time the VA has a bigger say than we do.”
Donovan noted that a Fisher House in Cleveland would meet a pressing need.
“The Secretary of Veterans Affairs gives us a list of locations with the greatest need for family lodging at (VA) medical centers, and Cleveland is on his list,” he said. “It’s the VA’s choice.”
Currently there are 26 Fisher Houses on VA properties nationwide. There are three Fisher Houses in Ohio, one at the VA medical center in Cincinnati, and two at Wright Patterson Air Force base near Dayton.
Donovan said that as soon as a final site here is selected and donated, work can start on site preparation including environmental inspections and plans for utility connections.
Construction would take about 12 to 15 months, so even if the site was finalized this year, the Greater Cleveland Fisher House would not open until 2016, according to Donovan.
The $6 million price tag is on a par with the cost of similar Fisher House facilities.
Building the facility is not contingent on the local campaign meeting its $3 million goal. “When a site is ready for us to start building, we’ll start building,” Donovan said.
He praised the efforts of the local campaign. “They’re doing great. It’s a very passionate group, doing a great job not only just raising money, but raising awareness about Fisher House,” he said.
Once the Greater Cleveland Fisher House is built, it will be run and staffed by the VA. Donovan said operating costs can typically range from $150,000-$200,000 a year.
The foundation stays involved with its facilities in terms of providing possible assistance for repairs, or costs associated with rehabilitation.
A Fisher House also heavily relies on volunteers to help make residents comfortable, Donovan said.
The local campaign will continue to collect funds to provide money for resident family outings and “just to make these people feel comfortable in Cleveland,” Sweeney said.
According to Donovan, the benefits of a Fisher House here also go beyond the projection that it will provide nearly 6,000 nights of lodging per year, saving veterans’ families in excess of $500,000 annually that would have been spent on hotels, meals and other costs.
“One thing a Fisher House always shows these families is that somebody cares about their sacrifice, not just of a veteran but the sacrifice of a veteran’s family as well,” he said.
“That, in and of itself, does some pretty remarkable things for these families.”
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