From Diane Pickett and Julie Smith
Diane Pickett, long time resident of DeFuniak Springs and owner of a large tract of land at the intersection of I-10 and U.S. 331 announced the sale of her property and future plans for the development of the Veterans Lodge, founded by Julie Connell Smith. The impact for DeFuniak Springs and Walton County will be historic and transformational in terms of bringing economic diversity and jobs to the City of DeFuniak Springs and Walton County, Fla.
According to local economic experts, veterans have been and continue to be a vital component in developing Northwest Florida’s economy. In a recent NW FL Daily News article, former Florida State Senator Don Gaetz stated “You get the kind of economic development that is supported by the infrastructure you have. In northwest Florida, the human capital in veterans is definitely part of that infrastructure.” The Veterans Lodge will provide veterans returning to northwest Florida, as well as existing retired veterans, a setting to receive transitional assistance, job training programs, business services, rehabilitation and long-term wellness care. Serving as a model humanitarian project, it can be duplicated throughout the United States.
Veterans Lodge is an unprecedented and significant commitment to the present and future welfare of our veterans. The primary focus will be on veterans’ abilities, not disabilities, serving as an icon for others to follow in both private and public partnerships. It will be a place where veterans know their wounds — whether visible or invisible — are a symbol of their courage and sacrifice. Veterans Lodge will help veterans get their lives back by providing them with enriching therapy, abundant education alternatives and a strong sense of community. The ultimate goal will be to create a network of Veterans Lodge locations across the United States in areas with high concentrations of servicemen and women. The Founder and CEO, Julie Connell Smith conceived Veterans Lodge as an environment where veterans can safely begin transforming back to civilian life.
The Flagship Lodge will be located on a 400+ acre tract in close proximity to military bases, medical facilities and educational institutions. After strategic review, DeFuniak Springs, Fla. was selected as the flagship site and will serve the needs of all northwest Florida veterans. There are 21 military bases in the state of Florida and northwest Florida is home to a significant concentration of Air Force and Navy installations, including Naval Air Station Pensacola, Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Naval Support Activity Panama City, Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Tyndall Air Force Base. This site will ensure that our first Lodge will be able to provide services that are geographically convenient to Veterans, as well as have strong community backing.
Veteran’s Lodge aims to provide the following:
Job training for specific skills requested by affiliated employers
Cutting edge research and development for frontal head injury and PTSD
Lessening the burden on the government through private institutions
Temporary (up to 6 months) housing
Long term wellness care
Holistic family therapy
Veterans Lodge will begin clearing land in early 2018 and has extensive construction budgets, architectural designs as well as land planning complete. Veterans Lodge expects to create substantial construction jobs as well as jobs in rehabilitation, memory care, educational and technical services and more.
Of major importance, a public infrastructure connector road of approximately 1.74+/- miles has been approved for construction between U.S. 331 and Highway 280A and initial funding in the amount of $1.5 million has been secured from the Florida State Legislature. Walton County has received confirmation of the initial appropriation and has submitted a County incentive grant to match the funds.
Diane Pickett, former property owner and Julie Smith/Veterans Lodge have both executed right-of-way property donation agreements with the Florida Department of Transportation. This new road is slated for construction possibly as early as 2018 and will benefit all the citizens of Walton County by relieving congestion on U.S. 331 and providing a much-needed emergency response route for citizens seeking medical care, fire, rescue and other emergency response situations from Highway 280A and the surrounding communities.
Construction on the flagship site will begin as soon as necessary permits (in progress) have been obtained. Development plans for the initial 400-acre flagship site include a Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center, Memory Care and Assisted Living, the Veterans Lodges and housing units, an education center for technical education services, an Amphitheatre for events, a Chapel, and commercial food services. Affordable housing and cabins will be interwoven with recreational areas including a ropes/challenge course, equestrian area, meadows, gardens/orchards and conservation areas. The design of Veterans Lodge will incorporate all appropriate and sustainable aspects of environmental usage. Master plan prototype can be found at: https://veteranslodge.org//