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OPINION: VA must preserve Battle Mountain Sanitarium

The recent listing of the VA’s Battle Mountain Sanitarium on the National Trust of Historic Place’s 2014 Most Endangered Historic Places probably won’t be enough to alter the U.S. Department of Veterans Affair’s proposal to close its Hot Springs VA Medical Center and relocate to Rapid City.

Despite repeated calls for the Black Hills VA Healthcare System to delay its plans for the Hot Springs VA and its broken promise to consider alternatives, the VA has initiated the process of closing its Hot Springs facilities by scheduling hearings for the legally required Environmental Impact Statement.

Despite the recent EIS hearings, the VA has repeatedly demonstrated how little it cares about what Black Hills residents or the veterans it serves think about its plans to abandon Hot Springs and build new facilities in Rapid City.

We believe that the VA needs to explain what it plans to do with the Battle Mountain Sanitarium. In its initial proposal, the VA said it would explore repurposing its campus.

What does that mean? The VA hasn’t explained what it will do with the medical center.

Because the sanitarium — which is more than 100 years old — is on the National Register of Historic Places, repurposing it for other uses could be problematic. That could be what prompted the NTHP to put the building on its endangered historic places list.

The VA has claimed that it is too expensive to continue its operations in Hot Springs. Closing the Hot Springs medical center and building new facilities in Rapid City and Hot Springs will save money, the VA claimed in a post-decision economic analysis that conveniently supports a plan that had already been written.

The NTHP disputes that analysis. It released a study in November that criticized the VA for its repeated practice of abandoning historic medical facilities it owns in favor of building new hospitals. The National Trust’s report found that building new facilities is 20 percent to 30 percent more expensive than the cost to remodel existing medical care centers because of the need to acquire land, construction costs and purchasing new equipment.

“The VA is proving to be poor stewards of its historic buildings,” said David J. Brown, NTHP’s executive vice president and chief preservation officer. “Our hope is that with continued support and discussion, we can engage the VA with its proposal to shutter this healing center and that there will be improved consideration for this historic medical facility.”

We still believe that remaining in Hot Springs is the only option that makes economic sense for the Black Hills VA.

Any decision by the VA that involves moving its medical care facilities to Rapid City must include a detailed plan that preserves the Battle Mountain Sanitarium. Boarding up its century-old medical campus and letting it crumble by neglect is not an acceptable option.