A neglected five-story skeleton of a building on the city’s Northwest Side looks almost exactly like it did when I last visited two years ago, except for the weeds being taller and the temporary braces rustier.
By now, this was supposed to be a new Illinois Veterans Home, the first to be located in the Chicago area where the largest concentration of the state’s veterans reside.
Instead, it remains a sad brick-and-concrete symbol of the dysfunction in Illinois government.
Gov. Bruce Rauner halted construction on the project in July 2015 in the early stages of his state budget fight with Democratic legislators.
And that’s exactly how the abandoned structure remains 29 months later, open and exposed to the elements of what will soon be its third winter.
Veterans Day seems like a particularly good time to take note of the fact that another construction season has come and gone with this long-promised facility no closer to being ready to serve the veterans who need it.
It’s an outrage, when you get right down to it, and I thank veterans’ advocate Joe Bazil for bringing the matter to my attention.
I’d lost track of the project since writing about it in January 2016 when the work stoppage was a relatively new problem.
I would have never guessed back then that anyone would have allowed the situation to fester so long.
Surely, given all the lip service that politicians are always paying to their concern for veterans, somebody would have put it on their priority list, despite the state’s financial difficulties.
In fact, I’d assumed work had resumed and was nearing completion by now.
Rather, the project finds itself in the land of Wait Until Next Year.
A spokeswoman for the state Capital Development Board said the agency is now trying to address unspecified “engineering issues” identified when it tried to restart the project. Substantial completion of the facility is now projected for mid-2019, she said.
Bazil, who spent three years in the Army before a career in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is among those who have been clamoring for such a facility for a decade.
Bazil said his outreach work at the VA often put him in contact with families of Chicago area veterans looking for a specialized nursing home-type setting for their loved ones.
Illinois operates four residential veterans homes that provide long-term skilled nursing care, but the closest is in Manteno, which currently has a three-month waiting list. The Chicago facility was supposed to bridge that geographic gap.
I have never heard anyone argue the project is not needed.
What Rauner has said is that the state couldn’t afford to finish the project and open the facility during its budget difficulties.
Bazil just wants to know what’s taking so long.
“I’m not making this a Republican or a Democrat thing,” he said. “We just need our politicians to figure it out and get it done.”
The new 200-bed facility, which will include a wing for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, is being built on state property alongside the Chicago Read Mental Health Center in the 4200 block of North Oak Park Avenue.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn announced the project in late 2009 but didn’t break ground until September 2014 in the midst of his losing re-election campaign.
The Capital Development Board spokeswoman said workers are currently back on site making fixes to the building’s foundation. I’ll take her word for it, but nobody was there when I visited Wednesday.
She also said contractors also will be onsite this winter, primarily doing interior work, which would be a pleasant surprise.
“There should be a lot of activity by spring, they’re telling me,” said state Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat who supports the project.
Optimism is good. What might work better is for every state politician who appears at a Veterans Day event this weekend to be called upon to explain exactly what they’re doing to make sure this gets done.