It was the second time they brought shovels to the pile of dirt in Aurora, but this time they meant it.
A group of about 150 veterans and their supporters on Monday joined U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter — universally hailed as the driving force behind the long-stalled regional veterans hospital — and other congressional dignitaries to celebrate a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site of the proposed Denver VA Medical Center replacement facility at the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora.
When it’s completed — the VA estimates that’ll be early 2015 — it will be the largest veterans hospital in the country and will include a state-of-the art center to treat spinal-cord injuries.
“We will be very happy when we see those bulldozers moving that dirt and the backhoes digging the trenches and you knock down these buildings and get this thing built,” Perlmutter said, toasting the start of the $800 million project intended to replace an outdated, 59-year-old facility in east Denver.
He said later he couldn’t wait to return to the site with scissors, instead of shovels, and do some ribbon-cutting.
Pointing to the veterans in the crowd in front of him, Perlmutter challenged them to maintain the pressure that brought the project to this point.
“I want you to be 150 construction supervisors,” he told them. “Keep an eye on this project!”
The construction project moved into high gear last week after Perlmutter sent a terse letter — seconded by Colorado’s two U.S. senators — earlier this month to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki demanding he resolve a festering impasse over the hospital’s main construction contract. Two days later — on the eve of Veterans Day — the VA said it would work things out, and a week later the $580.2 million contract with the Englewood-based Kiewit-Turner Joint Venture firm had been inked.
Perlmutter promised he’d show up Monday at the fallow construction site to “party or protest,” depending on whether the VA and the construction company worked out the contract. As things turned out, Perlmutter popped bottles of celebratory apple cider and the assembled veterans cheered, though several clutched warning signs that read, “Build the damn thing!”
VA officials trooped to Aurora and joined Perlmutter for the first ceremonial groundbreaking in August 2009. The next spring, Congress appropriated $800 million for the project. After more than a year of delays signing the construction contract for the main hospital, Perlmutter and U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet said they’d had enough and pressured the VA to get moving.
“Miraculously, the deal was done the next day! I guess that’s how it works,” said United Veterans Committee Colorado President Ralph Bozella. Happily, he said, “we’re here today in celebration and not in demonstration.”
Bozella added that the next priority for the local veterans’ community is to make sure “that veterans build this thing.”
Aurora Veterans Affairs Commissioner Ed Knox said he, too, was hopeful contractors would hire veterans for the construction.
“I hope that the long journey actually culminates in a good building being built for veterans, mostly by veterans,” said Knox.
“Now that the contract is signed, we need to start turning dirt and provide Colorado veterans with a state-of-the-art, stand-alone hospital to call their own,” said Bennet. “It’s taken far too long to get to this point, but I’m pleased the VA is making good on its promise to provide Colorado veterans with the world-class medical facility they have earned, fought for and deserve.”
Some of the assembled veterans said they never thought they’d see the day when work would actually start on the hospital — “After 12 years of broken promises,” began one vet’s observations — and a few even said they were reserving judgment until the doors open. There have been too many false starts over the years, one vet said.
“I’m not ready to slam the door shut on it being a done deal,” said Knox, barely concealing an ear-to-ear grin. “Call me cynical right now — I love the celebration, and I’m all about the celebration and I want it to happen — but until such time as myself and other veterans in this area are able to get appropriate care from a veteran’s hospital, I’m going to have to be a little bit cynical.” Still, he conceded, it looked promising that it was finally happening.
“Let’s just get it done,” he said. “Like they say, let’s just build the damn thing.”
The 182-bed hospital will include a 30-bed center devoted to veterans with spinal cord injuries, a 30-bed nursing home, and a research facility. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, it will employ roughly 2,000 people and serve some 82,700 veterans in a four-state region, covering Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. During construction of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified structures, the project will create an estimated 6,300 jobs over the next three and a half years.