Story last updated at 5/8/2013 - 3:46 pm
Public officials and Haines Assisted Living, Inc. (HAL) joined veterans and community members Saturday at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Soboleff-McRae Veterans Village in Haines.
The project is the first state-funded private veterans housing facility in Alaska, and will be built over the next two years with 11 housing units for veterans and 10,000 square feet of office space for nonprofit support organizations.
"If the men and women who sacrificed for us are ignored, then our town is just a hollow shell," said HAL President James Studley on Saturday. "At best, we can only attempt to repay the debt to these friends among us by at least making sure they have a safe, decent home in their own community."
The Haines Veterans Village is named for Tlingit elder Dr. Walter Soboleff and CSM Howard McRae, Haines' highest decorated military veteran. It is designed to provide permanent affordable housing and on-site supportive services to any veteran, from any branch of service and of any age.
Haines has and is projected to continue to have a larger percentage of veterans among its residents than many other communities in the region and state. According to a Juneau Economic Development Council feasibility study, by 2025, the veteran population in Haines will have increased by 28 percent to 449 persons and 70 percent of its veterans will be 65 or older.
Aaron Schroeder, Veterans staff to Alaska Senate President Charlie Huggins, said on Saturday that Haines is a leading example of how to care for the growing veteran and elder populations.
"One of the many things that we're working on is exactly what's happening out there," Schroeder said. "Haines here is so unique in the aspect that they're obviously ahead of the curve. The situation is such that we can put a home out there right now. We know the population, we know the need, we know the region. That's truly a special thing that's going on right here."
At Saturday, April 27th's afternoon ceremony, Soboleff and McRae family members each used a commemorative shovel to turn up dirt at the site for the first time, marking the beginning of the construction phase of this long-awaited project.
Special guest family members included Walter Soboleff, Jr., Dr. Soboleff's son; Jean McRae Clayton, CSM Howard McRae's sister; and Sarah McRae, CSM Howard McRae's widow.
The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Dancers blessed the site by scattering eagle down and celebrated with a song, drum and dance performance that led the gathered crowd in a procession from the site to American Legion Post 12. There, a celebration dinner served ceremony participants and military veterans, including Jimbo Stevens, a Tlingit Vietnam Veteran from Klukwan.
"This is home. Now, a lot of guys won't have to leave to get a place at home. Haines is 21 miles away from Klukwan. It's close," said Stevens. "This is a great ... a great thing."
Recognizing the unmet need for veteran housing in Alaska, Dr. Soboleff - not long before his death in 2011 - began working with the Alaska Veterans Advisory Council and then-Representative Bill Thomas of Haines to foster the concept of building a place for veterans to live.
"I don't want to die away from Southeast," said Soboleff early in the project. "We need a veterans home here for all the folks of our region who have served their country."
In 2012, the State of Alaska approved $6.1 million for the construction of a building with high energy efficiency standards and incorporates a management system that ensures self-sufficiency and sustainability with no recurring public subsidies. HAL is working to raise the remainder of necessary funds to ensure the building's self-sustainability through a grassroots fundraising effort. That money will make up a permanent fund that will cover operational costs for the building inhabitants in perpetuity.
"We are a small community that wants to show the world a way to take care of our treasured citizens," said Studley. "We are making it happen through contributions from people everywhere who want to see this idea work."
Contributions can be made to the project through the Veterans Village web site, www.HainesVeteransVillage.org.
The veterans housing units, located on the second floor of the design, are expected to be ready for move-in within 18 - 24 months. Seven of the units are 2-bedroom apartments reserved for military families and four are 1-bedroom apartments for single veterans. The future office space on the first floor is designated for healthcare and nonprofit services that support general community wellness and are of particular importance to veterans and elders, such as independent living services. It is expected to be complete within two years.
The facility is now under construction in downtown Haines, Alaska, a Southeast Alaska community with a population of 2,508 residents and an estimated 397 veterans. It is part of a complex that includes an assisted living facility and an independent living facility for elders.
For more information on the Soboleff-McRae Veterans Village project, log on to www.HainesVeteransVillage.org.