Data gathering continues for VA Complex

Amorette Allison
Star Staff Writer
Progress continues, slowly but steadily, on gathering information the Custer County Commissioners need to make a decision regarding the Veterans Administration  Healthcare Facility in Miles City.
The commissioners have until the end of the year to decide if they will accept from the federal government ownership of the complex, formerly the Veterans Administration Medical Center and currently occupied by assorted businesses, agencies and nonprofit organizations. If not, the building could be sold at auction by the federal General Services Administration.
County Commissioner Jason Strouf reviewed the history of the proposal on Tuesday with the three firms that are responding to the county’s Request for Qualifications (RFQ). The RFQ is the first step in choosing a firm to produce a feasibility study that is intended to provide the County Commissioners with facts and figures to assist with their decision.
Should Custer County accept the donation of the VA complex, which includes 22 buildings with a combined 175,000-square feet of space on 14 acres? That is what the feasibility study is designed to answer.
The VA closed the Medical Center in the late 1990s and most of the complex was abandoned, except for a small portion that was used as an assisted living center. This left the federal government to decide what to do with the space.
In late 2000, Congress passed a law allowing specific smaller VA complexes to be given to their local county governments. One of those was here in Miles City. A group was created to research the possibilities of the county taking over such a large property.
Then, more than a decade passed.
Last summer, the VA contacted the county and abruptly informed the commissioners they had 90 days to decide if they wanted the complex.
The commissioners, — Strouf, Keith Holmlund and chairman Kevin Krausz — made it clear that 90 days was not long enough for the necessary due diligence, especially since the VA was not initially forthcoming with information.
Of late, Strouf said, the VA has been more cooperative and the deadline has been been extended until the end of this year.
Tuesday, representatives from three firms — Stevenson Design Of Miles City, and KLJ and Great West Engineering, both of Montana — and a representative from one of the current tenants in the VA complex met during a conference call between the commissioners and Julie Emmons of Southeastern Montana Economic Development Corporation. The purpose was to answer any questions anyone had about the RFQ.
Strouf emphasized that he is only in favor of acquiring the building if it won’t cost taxpayers money. “This cannot be a burden on the taxpayers of this county. How can this stand on its own and pay for itself,” he asked.
Strouf also mentioned the old Holy Rosary Healthcare high rise, which was acutioned off and then abandoned about 15 years ago. The taxpayers ended up paying for the demolition, and the commissioners are trying to avoid a repeat.
On the positive side, Strouf said there are very few restrictions on what the county can do with the property based on the original 2000 legislation, as long as the complex is used generally for “economic development.” The location, next to Miles Community College and in a “dense residential area,” does provide opportunities.
Emmons explained that the VA has provided information, including spreadsheets on costs and lists of completed maintenance and abatement projects.
Since the firms answering the RFQ specialize in engineering or architecture, and a marketing study will be part of the feasibility study, Emmons said a subcontractor may be hired for that portion since it the “most essential part of the study.”
Emmons also said that the grants being used for funding the feasability study, from the Big Sky Trust Fund, the state Coal Board and the federal Economic Development Administration, do not have some of the strict reporting requirements that other federal grants have so the commissioners can be “flexible” in the scope of work.
Strouf said there will be public meetings about the possible uses for the VA that will include not just current tenants but anyone interested. Several organizations have expressed interest in part or all of the building.
Dwayne Rude, who was attending as one of those tenants representing the Custer County Food Bank, emphasized how well the location works for them. The VA complex “is convenient” and has loading dock space. He said it would be “difficult” for the Food Bank to find “such a nice facility” if they were to forced to leave.
The RFQs are due June 16. The commissioners will make their decision by the end of June, with work on the actual feasibility study set to begin in early July.
(Contact Amorette Allison at 234-0450 or