The formal groundbreaking for Phase 1 is set for next month

CANANDAIGUA — With ground about to be broken on the first phase of a major expansion project at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer thinks now is the time to push for the $190 million needed for the second and final phase.

Schumer stopped by the VA center Friday afternoon to announce the launch of his push, noting he was going after a portion of a $4 billion increase for VA facilities in the recently passed bipartisan omnibus federal funding budget bill.

“We're pushing hard to get a good chunk of the $4 billion right here,” Schumer told local leaders and veterans advocates in attendance.

He said the United States, since the days of Bunker Hill when Massachusetts farmers set down their plows to take up arms, owes its young men and women who have been willing to fight for the nation.

“When they come home, they deserve the best possible health care that they can get,” he said. “It's been a struggle, but we're making it better and better. The day America forgets is veterans is the day the sun sets on America.”

Schumer was involved in the fight to save the Canandaigua VA when the federal government announced plans to close it 15 years ago, and led the charge to secure $161 million for the first phase to modernize the Canandaigua campus.

The first phase involves building a new 84,200-square-foot, three-story modern outpatient clinic in undeveloped space between buildings 1 and 2; and state-of-the-art upgrades, including modernizing utilities, access roads and parking.

Schumer said a formal groundbreaking will take place on April 10 with the new center opening in 2022. He said he would like to get the second-phase funding in time to advertise late this year, award a contract in March 2019 and finish in 2023.

“There are 61,000 veterans in the Finger Lakes-Rochester area,” he said. “They deserve the best care and this facility will get them that."

The second phase calls for the construction of several new buildings and renovation of many others to improve care and upgrade services for area veterans.

Schumer said included is construction of a new community living center consisting of 10 small cottages, with room for 12 veterans each, to provide nursing home level of care, including daily living needs, skilled nursing and medical care.

The existing 50-bed domiciliary will be renovated to provide short-term (three to six months) housing for veterans recovering from substance abuse, homelessness and mental health or behavioral health concerns.

The second phase also includes renovating Building 3 to improve rehabilitation and physical therapy services to support outpatients, administrative and logistics functions of the campus; and renovation of the Building 5 ventilation system.

“Hello, Ralph,” Schumer said to well-known local Korean War veteran Ralph Calabrese, who fought hard to keep the VA center open and continues to advocate for veterans. “It's great to be back here.”

Calabrese led the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Schumer said the new federal budget also includes $1 billion for mental health treatment for veterans, including $160 million for suicide prevention. He said a lot of that money will come to Canandaigua, which has one of three national suicide prevention hotlines.

First to thank Schumer was Wayne Thompson, chairman of the Finger Lakes Veterans Advocacy Council, who cited the cooperation of the town and city and called Canandaigua a warm place for veterans.

“We appreciate partnering with the VA to usher in this new facility for veterans,” he said.

“You continue to bring great news to us,” said Jack Marren, chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors.

Canandaigua City Mayor Ellen Polimeni, accompanied with a bag of cookies she baked for Schumer, said she came to Canandaigua in 1961 to student teach, partially because her parents suggested it would be easy for her to frequently visit her uncle at the VA Medical Center.

“The Canandaigua VA is the Canandaigua community,” she said. “The VA in Canandaigua really sets the tone for the community. The importance of taking care of veterans is just what Canandaigua is about.”

Greg Westbrook, Canandaigua town supervisor, said the town is proud to host the VA center, noting it helped secure 10,800 acres of farmland for the 300-acre campus that was all farmland before World War II.

“There's a shared responsibility by leadership of the town and city that we owe these veterans,” he said. “There's a belief in this town, together we can make it a better Canandaigua.”

Schumer then welcomed to the podium U.S. Navy veteran Rena Nessler of Geneva, commander of The American Legion Department of New York, who had worked at the Canandaigua VA for 39 years. Nessler said they needed to make sure health care for veterans continues tomorrow in their communities where they reside.

Before Schumer left, Calabrese asked what the chances are the Canandaigua VA Medical Center could become a full-service hospital.

Schumer said that could be the next step, if funding can be secured for the second phase.