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Manatee County approves veterans housing project

Written by on Thursday, October 12, 2023

After two months of delays, commissioners vote unanimously to donate county land.

By Dania Hefley

Original Air Date: Oct. 11, 2023

Host: At first sight, the 20 million-dollar affordable housing project for veterans in west Bradenton looked like a shoo-in. But then came two months of hemming, hawing, and delaying by commissioners who are not shy about waving the flag. Yesterday, the Manatee County commissioners look an important step on the veterans housing project, and WSLR reporter Dania Hefley was there to tell you what happened.

Dania Hefley: Following an eight-week delay and what looked like attempts to stop the project entirely, the Manatee County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved a transfer of county land that will enable an affordable housing project for veterans. During the Tuesday meeting, the vice president of Tunnel to Towers – the New York-based non-profit willing to take on the $20 million project – gave another detailed presentation to commissioners. Gavin Naples addressed the list of concerns that had been raised over the long course of negotiations. Naples also took the opportunity to clear the air of misinformation regarding the project – not just the misinformation that was being spread earlier in the week through anonymous text messages and letters, but misinformation that has been coming directly from the board.

Gavin Naples: It’s been a long road here, obviously. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation stands to deliver this program as we have for about a year now. But we are deeply saddened by the misinformation and the lies that have been surrounding this program. And so my objective here today, whether or not the vote goes one way or the other, is to correct the narrative and make sure everyone understands what this program is, what the Tunnel to Towers Foundation is, and what our track record is for helping veterans and first responders throughout the nation.

DH: Following Naples’ presentation, commissioners Jason Bearden and James Satcher continued to express reservations about this project. While asking questions, Bearden appeared irritated as he explained to representatives of the project he was:

Commissioner Jason Bearden, who served as a Marine.

Jason Bearden: sick and tired of veterans being used as pawns for people to make money off them.

DH: In earlier meetings, he had criticized US Vets, a non-profit Tunnel to Towers has contracted in other projects to provide services. Bearden continued to question the Tunnel to Towers official.

JB: Is this a housing first approach?

Darryl Vincent: Yes, yes Sir. It’s housing first, but there will be no transitional housing on this property.

JB: Okay, so it’s a housing first. So, guys with drugs, with alcohol issues, we’re going to house them first.

DV: No, incorrect.

JB: Darryl just said that, Darryl just said that, Is that a housing first approach?

DV: My name is Darryl Vincent, the chief operating officer of US Vets. A housing first approach means that you do not rule people out simply because they have issues. The issues are addressed with wrap-around services. There are far more people with homes with drug addiction and mental health illnesses than people that are homeless.

Similarly, Satcher’s tone and demeanor seemed confrontational toward the Tunnel to Towers representative. Satcher’s line of questioning focused on the number of units that would be on the property. Satcher frequently cut off Naples while he attempted to answer his questions, sometimes denying him the chance to respond at all.

James Satcher: So right now, the units that we’re talking about is 120.

Gavin Naples and Mark Barnebey: 122.

JS: That’s roughly twice.

MB: Can I make a comment?

JS: Alright, you can do the math. I mean, I’m sure it’s what – 40% or 1.7.5.

MB: The question …

JS: Sixty-two times- divided into one point.

MB: Commissioner, we’re gonna have to come before you with a site plan. With site planning, you’re just gonna see 122 units and, and …

JS: Let me stop you there because – let’s be honest – once you come to us with a site plan, I mean, this is our time to represent our citizens and get the maximum on their behalf in this deal. 

DH: Following questions from the board, the commissioners recessed for an hour-and-half lunch, before coming back to hear public comments.

Manatee County will donate the land on W. Cortez Road its utility department sits on.

After the recess there were more people in the meeting than when we left, many of whom came specifically to speak during public comment. Many of them cited a letter or text message they had received.

Tal Siddique, who is running against Kevin Van Ostenbridge for his seat on the board, spoke and gave evidence of the letters and messages these citizens were referring to. One of the messages read, “There’s a vote to put a homeless shelter smack in the middle of our neighborhood – commissioner Kruse’s latest plan gives away $6 million in taxpayer lands to New York DEVELOPERS so they can build a homeless shelter next door to our neighborhood. This homeless camp could house hundreds – and there is no guarantee that the developer won’t ship homeless from across the nation to OUR community.”

Almost all of the residents called the messages misleading and said that after hearing the presentation by Tunnel to Towers they had changed their minds.

Janice Nemetz: Janice Nemetz, and I live in Manatee County. And I have to say that I am one of those recipients of the letters that was so horrible. But I always believe that good comes out of everything, because I’m here today because of that letter.

Corey Right: I’m Corey Right, Manatee County. And I just want to say I listened to the presentation online this morning from Tunnels to Towers and I just kept saying, wow, wow, this is so awesome! And I want to say y’all deserve mad respect for your patience and tenacity in the face of the stuff you’ve been put through, including the anonymous dirty disinformation campaign that definitely did not come from the commissioners’ handlers.

Kathleen Kramer, CEO of Turning Points, a non-profit providing services to homeless people, also spoke in hopes to clear up the misinformation in those messages.

Kathleen Kramer: Yes, community members have the right to be concerned, but this is not fact. This is hysterics. And there were emails, there were mailings to people’s homes, there were texts going out to people with things that got them excited and concerned. But they’re not fact. They’re hysteric.

There was little deliberation among commissioners after public comment. Commissioner Mike Rahn moved to close the discussion with a “call to question”, moving the item quickly to a vote.

Kevin Van Ostenbridge: All in favor of the motion please say aye.

The Board: Aye.

KVO: All opposed – [silence]. Madam Clerk, it passes unanimously, by a vote of seven. 

This has been Dania Hefley reporting for WSLR News.


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