Rockville officials are considering a new use for the closed RedGate Golf Course — a second state veterans home.
The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, aided by state and local advocates, has been pursuing the possibility since the golf course abruptly closed in late 2018.
Rockville Council Member Mark Pierzchala said the sudden availability of more than 100 acres in suburban Montgomery County kicked off a rush of interest from developers, residents, and county officials, who have suggested potential uses for the property.
“When all of a sudden, 144 contiguous acres are not being used anymore, everyone has a new idea,” Pierzchala said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Rockville and Montgomery County are both so built out that it’s very hard to find that kind of land.”
The veterans home is one of the most popular suggestions, endorsed by County Executive Marc Elrich and supported by many city officials. Pierzchala said he told advocates that the home was a “done deal” — just as soon as the city worked out the specifics of the project.
“I’m totally in favor of it,” he said. “And I’ve told them that. It’s just a matter of details.”
Veterans homes are funded and constructed through partnerships between the state and the federal governments. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs contributes two-thirds of the costs, Maryland Veterans Affairs Secretary George Owings said. The state is responsible for a third of the funding and securing the land for the project. It also operates the facility once construction is complete.
The anticipated total cost of the project is a little more than $62.4 million, with Maryland contributing roughly $21.8 million. Owings was clear that the state is hoping for a donation of roughly 25 acres on the former golf course site. “We will not be buying any land,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Veterans advocates argue that the facility would still be a boon to the city and to Montgomery County even if officials gave up the land for free. Initial plans for the project call for a 120-bed facility with about 175 employees, including doctors, nurses, and administrators. The residents would work and volunteer in the local economy, said retired Col. Bob Norton, the president of the Maryland Military Coalition.
But Pierzchala doubted the project would have much of a fiscal benefit for the city. Rockville wouldn’t collect property tax on the facility, he said, and would only gain income tax if workers chose to live in the city.
“I can’t think of one single economic incentive,” he said firmly. “But there’s a need. Veterans need safe places to live, and in Maryland, there’s no other facility for them near a central urban area.”
The demand for more capacity and a more centralized location is driving the push for a Montgomery County location. For more than a decade, Maryland has been interested in building a new facility to complement Charlotte Hall, a 454-bed veterans home in St. Mary’s County, said Sharon Murphy, the director of the center.
The nursing facility, one of about 155 across the country, provides assisted living and medical services to disabled and aging veterans. The homes are generally split between assisted living beds — reserved for residents 62 or older with light to moderate medical needs — and nursing home beds for veterans of any age who require more intensive care.
It’s an issue of need, but also geography, said Norton, a Derwood resident. The state has more than 400,000 veterans, with the highest concentrations in central Maryland. Montgomery County alone has 42,000.
There’s a general demand for more beds, but also for a facility more accessible to veterans in the northern and western parts of the state, he said. Montgomery County has been a strong contender since 2016, when Maryland abandoned plans to build a second facility at Fort Howard in Baltimore County, the site of a former military base and veterans hospital.
“It all fell apart because the site was on a floodplain and there was only one small road leading in and out of the property,” Murphy said. After the state dropped plans to convert the 10-acre parcel, Owings pinpointed Montgomery County as an ideal location for a second home.
Owings said he sought out Rockville after RedGate closed in late 2018. Both Norton and Lynn Nash, the director of the Maryland Military Coalition, began petitioning the city to consider a new veterans home on the property.
In August 2019, Pierzchala said he attended a meeting at the County Executive Building in Rockville to discuss the possibility of a new facility. He was joined by Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, City Manager Rob DiSpirito and three council members, along with Owings and David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services. Tina Benjamin, the special projects director for the county executive’s office, was also there, Dise said.
The group discussed the project and took a morning tour of the golf course. But plans for the facility haven’t advanced much since the city’s election in November, Dise said, which brought in two new council members and put a temporary pause on the conversation.
But on Monday, Norton and Nash met with Donnell Newton and first-term council member Monique Ashton before the city’s weekly council session. Nash, who served 11 years with the U.S. Army and 19 years with the U.S. Public Health Service, took a picture of the elected officials accepting a packet of letters in support of the facility from nine veterans and advocacy groups across the state.
“This is truly based off the needs of the population,” she said. “Most of the time, these veterans are put into other nursing home communities that may or may not fit their needs. And they won’t be in a community that really understands their experience.”
The city is scheduled to discuss the future of RedGate at a council retreat this month and a public meeting on Feb. 3, Ashton said.
The council hasn’t reviewed a commissioned study on the recreational opportunities for the land or taken a holistic look at all development options. City officials are determining the number of buildable acres on the property, which includes hilly terrain that could restrict construction.
“I certainly care about providing space and honoring our veterans,” Ashton said. “But we want to do our due diligence. And in terms of what we specifically want to do with RedGate, how will it fit in?”
Owings said the state is considering other sites in other counties for the facility, but declined to give more specific information. Both Nash and Norton argue Rockville is ideal not only for its centrality, but for its proximity to other medical resources, including a recently opened VA outpatient clinic in Gaithersburg and Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda.