A local attorney has resigned his position on a board appointed to oversee development of the vacant Veterans Affairs medical complex in Marlin, saying he is discouraged by what he views as a lack of progress by the Houston-based company that bought the property this summer.
After years of trying, the state closed a $1.6 million deal in June that transferred title for the former Thomas Connally Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center to Sterling VA Marlin LLC, part of an investment group under Sterling Real Estate Development.
“The purpose will be to provide a place of housing, meals, counseling, job skill training and job placement for members of our nation’s military as they transfer from military to civilian life,” Mayor John Keefer said at the time.
The development group said it initially would open 30 rooms out of the former 220-bed hospital to house veterans, both men and women.
“But I’m disappointed,” said Denny Lessman, a Waco attorney and former Marlin resident appointed to a nine-member board asked to identify programs the 175,000-square-foot complex could accommodate.
The board oversees a nonprofit called Operation Re Launch, which would become involved in the Houston group’s plan to transform the long-vacant complex into the National Campus for Veterans Transition.
Lessman said former Marlin Mayor Elizabeth Nelson has been dedicated to the project and the city of Marlin, and was able to appoint an active, energetic board to shepherd the development.
Still, “nothing has happened since Sterling made public its intentions, and I think that is unfortunate,” he said. “In fact, I’ve heard complaints about the high grass and other problems. The situation has become frustrating. This group has not been a good neighbor, in my opinion.”
Lessman said he was not speaking for the board, since he has resigned, but added he was willing to share his opinion.
He said he left the board to prevent any appearance of a conflict of interest since he serves as Marlin’s municipal judge and could have to consider formal complaints about the property’s deteriorating condition.
“If the state and federal government can’t succeed in re-purposing this facility, I do not know who can,” Lessman said. “It will involve a lot of work and a lot of luck, making the right connections and lining up investors. It will not happen overnight. But it appears to have sputtered.”
No one with Sterling could be reached for comment.
Nelson, a longtime advocate for finding a new use for the Veterans Affairs facility, described Sterling as “nice people with good intentions,” whom she has worked with more than a year.
But, like Lessman, she is disappointed by the lack of progress. She was led to believe “that something would be opened there by August, and obviously that was not the case,” Nelson said.
She said she has not lost faith in the mission.
“The board I have appointed is filled with movers and shakers who have expertise in education and who know the needs of veterans,” she said. “This project is not dead because we will not let it die. The board is dedicated to making sure whatever happens is very positive for Marlin.”
Nelson said ultimately the use of the building “may go beyond veterans and may feature some new players.”
The city of Marlin and the state, with the help of Nelson, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, state Rep. Kyle Kacal and others, have been searching for a suitable tenant since the facility was given to the state in 2006 and plans to convert it into a prison hospital fell through in 2011, Nelson said at the time the property changed hands during the summer.
Sterling Real Estate Development showed interest in buying both the vacant medical center and the historical, 110-room Falls Hotel about a year ago, but Nelson said the group has made no offer on the hotel.
The company reportedly had considered reopening the mineral baths that once brought between 50,000 and 80,000 people a year to the city.
Keefer, the current mayor, said the development group may have encountered more difficulty in recruiting investors than it anticipated.
He said reaching representatives of Sterling Real Estate Development has proved challenging at times.
Nelson said Sterling has indicated it expects to spend $15 million to $20 million on renovations. Keefer said he has heard employment estimates that range from 200 to 500, “but that figure truly depends on what they do with the building, and people could just be tossing out numbers.”
The former hospital has been a source of aggravation for the small city of about 6,000. In 2007, the building was expected to become a prison hospital for women. But by the time funding fell through in 2011, state taxpayers had paid $1.2 million to maintain the structure, according to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.
The six-story structure opened in 1949 and was dedicated in 1950 to Thomas Connally, who was a U.S. senator at the time and had represented Marlin the state House of Representatives. Connally helped make Marlin a once well-known “political mega-center,” Nelson said.