WASILLA -- A planned transitional living center in the Valley, home to one of the country's fastest growing senior populations, is drawing fire for displacing a long-standing veterans memorial.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday night approved the $1.215 million sale of property near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center to Idaho-based developer Spring Creek Enterprise LLC. The company plans to build a 60-bed, 14,000-square-foot facility to provide transitional care for senior patients leaving the hospital as well as longer-term care.
Visible from the Parks Highway, the site is the current home of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau visitor center, which is moving to a new facility on the Glenn Highway. But it also houses the Veterans Memorial Wall of Honor -- dark granite panels that bear more than 2,300 names on a windy hill where the wall has sat for more than 20 years.
The wall needs to be moved for the senior facility to go forward because it sits on a buildable chunk of what borough officials called a "topographically challenged" piece of property.
Numerous veterans and relatives at Tuesday night's meeting in Palmer urged the Assembly to reconsider before the 5-2 vote in favor of the sale.
Betty Brickel said she just submitted seven family members for inclusion on the wall.
"I'm totally disgusted," Brickel said of the planned sale. "It's money, money, money."
Several vets complained that they didn't know about the property sale until the last minute. One told the Assembly the wall is congressionally protected, prompting a brief recess to research the legality of the sale. The borough attorney found only that there was draft legislation to protect war memorials outside the United States.
The Schwulst family that manages the memorial site and sandblasts in each name, however, supports the sale.
Hazel Schwulst told the Assembly that Spring Creek assured her the wall will be part of the site design, albeit in a different location. The City of Wasilla has also offered a new location next to the existing Armed Forces Honor Garden near a city park.
The current location, on a rise with sweeping views up the Knik River Valley and along the Chugach Mountains, offers little protection from the fierce winds that can scour the area.
"We've always enjoyed the place up there," Schwulst said. "It's a little bit windy on Veterans Day, but it's still nice."
Several people spoke in support of the sale, praising the creation of an estimated 25 new jobs and the addition of senior care close to home.
Former borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss introduced Spring Creek to the location, CEO Douglas Clegg told the Assembly on Tuesday. The company looked at a dozen properties in Mat-Su but this one, with its proximity to the hospital, rose to the top, Clegg said.
The hospital is "highly motivated to have us on their campus," Clegg said.
Clegg assured the Assembly that Spring Creek considers the memorial sacred.
"It is in alignment with our vision for this site," he said. "We have no intention of desecrating, demolishing or diminishing … its current condition."
Assembly member and newly appointed Deputy Mayor Matthew Beck proposed an amendment Tuesday that requires Spring Creek to keep the memorial on the property. But, Beck said Wednesday, the borough has 30 days to change legislation and could potentially remove that provision if veterans and the company agree the wall can't stay on the property for some reason, or if it is going to be moved to Wasilla. Beck said he's confident the developer has already incorporated the wall into the project design.
"They've listened. They're planning for future growth of the wall and they want it to be an integral part of the design," he said.
Sale proceeds will go toward the development of the new visitors center, except for $50,000 earmarked for a borough parks and recreation shop building.
The two Assembly members who voted against the sale -- Steve Colligan and George McKee -- wanted to postpone the decision until December. Both also voted against Beck's amendment.