FRESNO — In the lobby of a brand-new, two-story complex in southwest Fresno, the old Marine stood straight and tall Thursday in accepting a gift for his military service: a potted plant with an American flag.
Bill Carr, 84, said he was thankful for the gift from Assembly member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, because it symbolized the end of a long struggle to build a home for veterans in need of medical care.
“I feel quite honored to be here,” Carr told Perea.
Carr, who joined the Marines when he was 17, was the first resident to move into the 300-bed Veterans Home of California-Fresno. More veterans will follow him in the coming months.
Carr said he picked a room that was spacious and allowed a lot of morning sun. Seeing him happy brought a smile to Perea and his staff. For three years, they have worked to restore funding for veterans homes in Fresno and Redding.
Construction of the estimated $250 million veterans home in Fresno began in May 2010. But money ran out and there was no money to run it.
In 2011, Perea introduced Assembly Bill 1422, the Veterans Homes Savings Act, which allowed the California Department of Veterans Affairs to dip into its savings to complete the two long-delayed projects.
“It was a team effort,” Perea said Thursday, noting that the city of Fresno and Fresno County played key roles in the project, which was built with state and federal funds.
He also credited his field representative, Nia Sibley, for organizing veterans and taking them by bus to the state Capitol to lobby state politicians to restore funding for the Fresno home and the 150-bed Redding home, both of which were nearly completed but would have remained closed due to proposed budget cuts.
In January, Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget included $27 million for the veterans homes in Fresno and Redding, enough money to open them with limited staff and serve a limited number of veterans.
“It’s been two years of bad news, but today we get to celebrate,” Perea said in welcoming Carr.
The Fresno veterans home has been in the works for more than a decade but was delayed by the state’s budget crisis and, at one point, looked as if it might be mothballed.
In mid-2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that paved the way for the Fresno veterans home. It capped a push to expand the state’s veterans homes. Voters approved in March 2000 a $50 million bond for new homes.
There was haggling over the Fresno home’s location. It was slated for Caruthers, and a site in southeast Fresno was considered before the state settled on 26.2 acres at Marks and California avenues.
At the time, the property was envisioned as a cornerstone for the proposed Running Horse golf course and luxury home development.
Developer Tom O’Meara promised to donate land to the state for the veterans home. But when he went bankrupt and the development came to a halt, the veterans home was stalled until the land was donated and the city stepped in to do infrastructure work on the project.
The home will provide long-term, assisted living and skilled nursing care for veterans over the age of 55 and their spouses. The home has a bank, barbershop, chapel, dining hall, post office, physical therapy room with weight equipment and a general store. Outside, there’s a miniature golf course and shuffleboard and lawn bowling courts.
The medical clinic will have an on-site doctor and several nurses.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” said Rojirio “Roy” De La Cerda, 39, the administrator in charge of the home.
Veterans will love their new home, he said, because, unlike a typical nursing home where patients share rooms with strangers, everyone will have his or her own room with private showers and restroom.
Carr said he was living “a quiet life” in Bakersfield before he decided to move to Fresno. Living here, he said, will put him closer to his two sons and six grandchildren who live in Fresno and Madera.
In another room, Elizabeth Clarke, 63, plopped down the duffel bag she’s had since her Air Force days in the 1970s.
“This is nice,” she said.
She had been living in an apartment near the VA hospital at Fresno and Clinton avenues in central Fresno. She said her new home is much better.
“I know I won’t miss dogs barking and the traffic,” she said.