House approves $400M bond for new Soldiers’ Home

  • Wreaths, signs and flags are part of a memorial at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

State House News Service
Published: 4/15/2021 9:02:24 PM

Just over a year ago, as reports of multiple deaths at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke started to circulate, the calls started to pour into the office of former Rep. Aaron Vega, where Rep. Patricia Duffy worked as a legislative staffer.

“In all my years working in constituent service, I’ve never felt so helpless and heartbroken as I did when I spoke to those family members who did not know the fate of their loved ones,” the first-term Holyoke Democrat said during a floor speech Thursday. “We can’t let that happen again.”

In an effort to address what legislators and advocates have called longstanding inequities at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the House voted 160-0 Thursday afternoon to approve legislation $400 million in long-term borrowing to pay for a new facility.

Lawmakers have joined the Baker administration in trying to speed the bill’s passage in order to apply for as much as $260 million from the federal government, which would leave state taxpayers to cover the remaining $140 million in project costs.

An initial application was due to the Veterans Affairs State Home Construction Grant Program on Thursday, and a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Humans Services confirmed the state had sent it in this week. The application must be vetted by Veterans Affairs before it can be shared publicly, the spokesperson said.

An application with the full design plans of the facility is due to the federal government on Aug. 1, and lawmakers who spoke Thursday stressed the importance of quickly passing the legislation so the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance can begin the design process.

“Given that a typical project of this nature could take between nine and 9½ months to design,” Rep. Danielle Gregoire said, “any delay moving forward could prove detrimental to DCAMM’s ability to complete design by the Aug. 1 deadline.”

During Thursday’s session, Gregoire laid out a timeline for the project: the “enabling work” for the project is expected to be done in spring 2022; construction will occur between summer 2022 and summer 2026; the move to the new building will be scheduled for fall of 2026; demolition of the existing facility will follow the move and end in 2028; and final site work and landscaping will take place between spring and summer of 2028.

The push to construct a new soldiers’ home in Holyoke follows the death of 77 veteran residents last year as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. Since then, lawmakers have investigated the cause of the outbreak and committed to reviewing leadership structures, staffing levels, training, and the facility itself.

“Words cannot and do not adequately define or measure such an unimaginable loss of so many lives,” said Second Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner. “Nor can words describe the grief and loss experienced by the families of those who died, as well as those who provided 24-hour care for the home’s resident veterans.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Wagner said, many “fault lines” were exposed.

“The matter before us today is in relation to another of those fault lines, an outdated facility that was ill-equipped to defend against a fast moving and deadly virus,” the Chicopee Democrat said. “It is this line that we move to address by our action today.”

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