Studies determined there to be about 267,000 veterans in the region, 14,000 of whom would require the care and training to be provided at Veterans Lodge.

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS — With the sale of a 400-acre parcel near the intersection of Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 331, the city could become an epicenter for veterans’ care in Northwest Florida.

Announced in a press release last week by longtime DeFuniak Springs resident and landowner Diane Pickett, the property was sold to Julie Connell Smith, a Tallahassee resident and founder of a veteran’s care organization named Veterans Lodge. The location will be the site of the Veterans’ Lodge flagship campus, which is set to break ground in early 2018, the release said.

“Veterans Lodge is an unprecedented and significant commitment to the present and future welfare of our veterans,” the press release said. “The primary focus will be on veterans’ abilities, not disabilities, serving as an icon for others to follow in both private and public partnership.”

According to the press release, Veterans Lodge will provide patient rehabilitation, post-secondary education, job training, research and development for frontal head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, temporary housing, long-term wellness care and holistic family therapy.

DeFuniak Springs was chosen for the flagship campus “after strategic review” because of its proximity to several military bases, including Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City and Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Smith said studies determined there to be about 267,000 veterans in the region, 14,000 of whom would require the care and training she plans to provide at Veterans Lodge.

DeFuniak Springs Mayor Bob Campbell said Tuesday he was very excited about the project, particularly the economic and infrastructure boost the center will likely bring.

“This has been in the works for a number of years, but it didn’t come to DeFuniak Springs until a number of months ago,” Campbell said. “This project is going to bring opportunities on numerous levels. ... It will bring skilled nursing positions, vocational people, trainers and instructors. It will bring a great deal of construction, and really the icing on the cake is that we get a connector from (U.S. Highway) 331 East to the next highway over, which is County Road 280A.”

According to the press release, a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Legislature was secured to construct a 1.74-mile connector road between the two highways, and Walton County has applied for a grant to match the funds. Veterans Lodge executed a right of way donation agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation to secure the plans for the road.

“We’ve got most of the money to get that road built,” Campbell said. “It will not be going directly into the Veterans Lodge, but what it will do is it will give access over to a part of our county that is a bit bottlenecked.”

Smith said she expected the first phase of the project to cost about $25 million, which would include the rehabilitation center, classrooms, an administrative building and temporary tenant housing. She said she was in the process of securing money for the project. According to a request for funding submitted to Triumph Gulf Coast, the total cost of the project is estimated to be $56 million. Veterans Lodge Holdings has requested $10.2 million from Triumph funds.

“We’ll go through grants at the county, state and federal levels,” she said. “We’ll also do private donations. Other than that, it’s self-sustaining. The rehabilitation pays for itself, we’ve already got Tricare and Medicare numbers for reimbursement. ... We’ll simply start out by getting grants that we can do, a construction loan, then we’ll start a fundraising campaign.”