Business owners fear Gainesville’s gateway at Newberry and Tower Roads is taking a turn for the worse.
They’re convinced that two planned changes in the area will hurt them financially.
The first change will convert a former 153-unit hotel at the southeast corner of intersection of the two roads into transitional housing for homeless veterans. The Alachua County Commission approved that plan last month.
The second possible change would place an Internet center near the hotel site, in the former Pizza Vito restaurant at 7750 Newberry Road.
“I think it [the veterans residence] is a recipe for disaster,” says Mitch Glaeser, manager partner of the nearby Tower Center, which includes Home Depot.
Virginia Nappy, co-owner of Napolitano’s restaurant on Tower Road, says the veterans housing project makes her nervous. “I’m worried for my customers,” she says.
The Internet center, proposed by the Allied Veterans of the World and which also would require commission approval, troubles Glaeser too. “I’m disheartened that it’s being planned instead of a more viable business,” he says.
County Housing Authority to Run Home for Vets
Despite the objections of Glaeser, Nappy and some other residents, the commission approved the veterans residence by a 3-2 vote, with Mike Byerly, Rodney Long and Paula DeLaney in support, and Lee Pinkoson and Susan Baird opposed.
The Alachua County Housing Authority has a federal grant to operate the residence, designed to transition homeless vets to independent living. Veterans could live in the facility for up to two years, during which time the Veterans Administration would provide them counseling, job-training opportunities and help finding permanent housing.
Gail Monahan, the housing authority’s executive director, says concerns about the project are unwarranted.
“These are good citizens, who will spend money and will be good for business,” she says. “This project could be a model for the country.”
The project will be comparable to one at the Regency Oaks apartments near the intersection of Archer Road and Southwest 34th Street, Monahan says. Nearly 150 veterans live in Regency Oaks through programs that the housing authority and the Volunteers of America operate, Monahan says.
Local VA staff members screen residents and monitor them closely, says Vianne Marchese, chief of community care services for the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.
“We haven’t had any reports of problems at Regency Oaks,” she says.
Many of the veterans in these housing programs are in vocational rehabilitation programs, are looking for work or are volunteering in the community, Marchese says. “They are very dedicated to getting their lives back on track.”
In the Newberry Road project, both the VA and the housing authority will be alert for residents who violate rules, Monahan says. “I don’t have any problem kicking people out. It’s a privilege to have this housing.”
Pinkoson and Baird were unconvinced when they reviewed the project before last month’s vote.
Pinkoson, who says he’s a strong supporter of veterans, had two concerns. First, the project would change the dynamic of the neighborhood and would be better suited on the VA hospital site, he says. Second, it could put a strain on county resources because of calls to the sheriff’s department and for ambulances for vets who become ill or are injured.
“This is one tough decision because the veterans deserve anything and everything,” he said.
Baird favored a smaller-scale project and added, “I believe there’s a better place.”
Bruce Nelson, who lives nearby, told the commissioners that the project wasn’t good for veterans because they would “claustrophobic” in the hotel rooms, and fights are stabbings are likely.
“The vet is being short-changed,” he said. “I think he is being duped into bailing out a bankrupt facility.”
County Attorney Dave Wagner reminded the commissioners throughout the public hearing that they were serving in a quasi-judicial capacity and that they were required to base their decision on evidence, not opinion.
Byerly said that Marchese provided the only true evidence in the hearing and that her testimony showed similar facilities didn’t hurt their neighborhoods.
“There’s never a perfect location for a facility that makes some people unhappy,” he said.