With the opening of its new VA hospital in Lake Nona slated for next year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is considering what to do with the aging VA clinic that sits on a piece of highly valuable real estate between Winter Park and Baldwin Park near downtown Orlando.
The 44-acre site includes a collection of 1970s buildings in which about 2,000 VA employees serve hundreds of thousands of local vets annually, mostly on an outpatient basis. Plans call for those services to shift to the $616 million Orlando VA Medical Center, which is under construction in southeast Orlando and expected to open late next year.
Developers consider the clinic property, which overlooks Lake Baldwin, an ideal spot for new subdivisions because it's between tony Winter Park and one of the region's most-successful residential developments — Baldwin Park. Even though the property is valued at $40 million on Orange County's tax rolls, it generates no property taxes because the federal government is exempt from paying them.
In 2005, as plans finally emerged for building Central Florida's first VA hospital in southeast Orlando, VA officials said the clinic by Lake Baldwin would close and the services provided there would move to the new site, which was to include a hospital, clinic and other health-care facilities. The existing clinic also has a nursing-home-style facility and a domiciliary for temporarily housing vets who are either homeless or recovering from addiction; similarly, the Lake Nona hospital campus will include a 60-bed rehabilitation center and a 120-bed nursing home.
But the VA now says the region's growing population of military veterans is likely to justify a decision by the agency to keep the Lake Baldwin property, renovate the existing buildings and use them to provide veterans with inpatient care and mental-health treatment.
"There is a lot of interest by veterans groups and by congressional folks to keep this with the VA," said Jeff Birdsong, the agency's executive officer in Orlando. "We want to ensure the building is in the right location for veterans to meet their needs, and this is definitely a great site."
The clinic was once the hospital for Naval Training Center Orlando, one of three recruit-training centers for the U.S. Navy until the entire base was closed down in the 1990s and bulldozed to make way for Baldwin Park. The facility is now one of three outpatient clinics in Central Florida attached to the Orlando VA Medical Center; the other two are in Viera and Daytona Beach. The center also includes smaller, community clinics in Leesburg, Clermont, Kissimmee and Orange City.
The VA is reassessing its Orlando-area space needs to ensure it can meet a growing demand among military vets for health care, especially mental-health services, Birdsong said. He expects a decision on the Lake Baldwin clinic site by next Sept. 30, end of the federal government's 2012-13 budget year.
Congressman John Mica, R-Winter Park, has written the VA advocating that the Lake Baldwin clinic remain open. He cited the need for the clinic to provide clinical and primary-care assistance, lab work, pharmacy services and outpatient services such as mental-health care.
"Because Florida's veteran population continues to expand, it is important to continue these veteran medical services at this facility for those veterans on the north side of the community, so they can continue to have access to these essential services," he wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in August.
If the VA determines it doesn't need the property, the site would have to go through the federal government's property-disposal process.
The land, adjacent to part of Winter Park High School and residential streets in both Winter Park and Baldwin Park, is zoned for public uses such as parks and schools. It would have to be rezoned for any type of commercial use.