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County seeks private operators for vets halls

  • An orchid show fills the main pavilion at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 in Santa Rosa. ((Kent Porter / Press Democrat))

Gene Marcinkowski's post is a solitary one these days.

He is the volunteer caretaker of the Cloverdale Veterans Memorial Hall, one of seven aging Sonoma County-owned veterans buildings with a future now in flux.

The 51-year-old Cloverdale hall has been closed to all but veterans' gatherings for months. Volunteers do any cleanup and the county is called only in emergencies, such as the leak that opened up in a rain storm last month.

“The building is slowly decaying,” said Marcinkowski, 70, an Air Force veteran who lives a block away. “I want to keep it up.”

County officials say they share the same goal, but the challenge for the budget-strapped government is monumental. The buildings have a combined $19 million maintenance backlog and operational losses have reached as high as $1.7 million in recent years.

The county's main solution, set in motion last year, is to outsource management of most of the buildings.

Those plans, now evolving in closed-door talks, focus on five of the halls — Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma, Cotati and Guerneville — said Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, whose department oversees the buildings.

At least three of those halls — Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Cotati — could be turned over to a Petaluma-based nonprofit that operates camps and retreats throughout Northern California.

Some veterans have voiced support for the effort, which they hope will improve marketing, use and upkeep of the halls.

The buildings are used by hundreds of community groups for 4,100 regular meetings, classes or special events each year. But aging infrastructure, rate hikes passed last year and cuts in upkeep and staffing have whittled away at those numbers.

“I'm anticipating some good things from this,” said Pete Peterka, a veterans' representative for the Santa Rosa building.

But other veterans and building users are worried about how the halls might be managed by private outfits. They were built in the three decades after World War II to serve and honor veterans, who enjoy priority access. They also function as community gathering spots.

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