Federal delegation urges VA to fulfill commitment to host Golden Age Games in Western New Yorkby jmaloni
Sen. Schumer and Rep. Higgins among those warning of potential $2.2 million loss to local economy
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and Congressman Brian Higgins stood Wednesday with Visit Buffalo Niagara President Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, local veterans and business representatives to protest the Department of Veterans Affairs decision to "postpone" the 27th annual "Warriors on the Waterfront" Golden Age Games, scheduled to have taken place in Western New York beginning May 30.
"After years of planning, the VA has abruptly knocked the Golden Age Games off the winner's podium in Western New York," Schumer said. "For years, the Western New York veterans and business communities have put time, energy and money into planning this incredible event to honor our veterans this May, and this rash, last-minute decision to indefinitely postpone the Games was a bad mistake that needs to be undone."
"Nearly 1,000 veterans have been planning and looking forward to taking part in this year's Golden Age Games, not to mention the local businesses counting on the revenue from an influx of visitors" Higgins said. "The Department of Veterans Affairs made a commitment to this nation's veterans and our community, and upholding that commitment is the right thing to do."
"The Western New York Veterans community has worked tirelessly for six years to make the Golden Age Games a reality," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. "The VA made a commitment to bring the games to Buffalo nearly two years ago, and the community immediately mobilized to make the 2013 Golden Age Games a success. Not only is this last-minute decision a devastating blow to nearly 1,000 veterans who registered for the games, (but) businesses across Erie and Niagara counties will be impacted as well. While I fully understand and support the VA's efforts to prioritize the needs of veterans, it is unfair to cancel an event that has undergone years of planning and local investment."
"The VA should not pull the rug out from under a community that has invested both time and money to organize and executive one of its events," said Congressman Chris Collins. "I have only been in Congress a short time, but over the last two-and-a-half-months, the VA has failed to impress on a number of fronts, and this is just the latest example. To date, my experience has been that the VA has a long road to travel to improve the services it is delivering for both veterans just returning home from war and those who served years ago."
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said, "The VA's decision to cancel the Golden Age Games is a disservice to our nation's veterans, and a blow to the Western New York economy. Many in the region have worked for years to make these games a reality. I hope the VA will rethink their decision, and remember the many small businesses and 1,000 veterans who are eagerly looking forward to the games."
"The entire Western New York community will unfairly suffer from the economic loss of the cancellation," said Congressman Tom Reed. "The Buffalo community made a commitment to holding this event and, together as a delegation representing Western New York, we ask that the VA honor its commitment to Western New York as it is in other places."
"After planning for the Veterans Golden Age Games for nearly three years, we were stunned and confused to hear of their cancellation, just 10 weeks prior to the games," said Gallagher-Cohen. "This is a tremendous loss for our region, since our hotel and venue partners had reserved large blocks of space for this event - declining other revenue opportunities along the way - and that space will now go unsold. Our community made a commitment to the Golden Age Games and we are greatly disappointed that the VA does not intend to honor theirs."
Nearly 1,000 veterans have registered to take place in the "Warriors on the Waterfront" Golden Age Games, many of whom have already made travel arrangements and accommodations in Western New York. The postponement of the Golden Age Games also has consequences for local businesses: The games were expected to have a $2.2 million impact on the local economy and the short notice does not allow hotels or facilities to find alternate sources of revenue. Additionally, events were scheduled to take place at a number of locations across Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Western New York, including the convention center, Erie Community College, Audubon Golf Course and the Made in America Store among others.
"In July 2007, local veteran advocates, Visit Buffalo Niagara, Veterans Administration personnel, local businesses and those who support veterans' programs began working to secure the National Veterans Golden Age Games for the City of Buffalo," said Dr. Patrick W. Welch, a retired USMC sergeant and the Golden Games local volunteer chairman. "Those years of work prevailed and, in August 2011, we were awarded the 27th annual Golden Age Games. Since that time, hundreds of hours have been spent in planning for all the work that precedes a competition of this magnitude. Now, just 10 weeks before the opening ceremonies, the Veterans Administration in Washington decides to postpone the games saying that they need to be good stewards of taxpayer money."
Welch added, "Veterans and veteran programs are exempt from any sequestration issues related to the nation's financial issues. As a veteran and taxpayer, I understand that we need to control spending, but any changes in programs should be pegged to future events that were not already committed to. I view this as another slap in the face to those who have served and defended this nation."
2013 would mark the 27th anniversary of the Golden Age Games, which the VA describes as the largest sports and recreation competition for military veterans 55 years of age and older in the world, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. While the VA has postponed Western New York's event, they have indicated no plans to cancel several similar events being held this year in Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, California and other destinations.
The Western New York federal delegation has heard from a number of businesses and veterans impacted by this postponement including, but not limited to:
A group of more than 40 veterans with plans to travel from Fresno, Calif., to Buffalo for the Golden Age Games;
The husband of a local volunteer who spent 50 hours per week over the past month registering people to compete in the games;
The general manager of a local hotel that has been holding rooms since 2009; this person reported it will cost the local hotel industry 5,000 room nights over the five-day event;
An 80-plus-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who took a stress test so he could begin training for the games, including riding his bike and swimming 100 laps.
Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, together with Congress members Higgins, Collins, Slaughter and Reed, sent a letter to Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Erie Shinseki, which says in part, "The VA made a commitment to this region and the people of Western New York, especially our veterans, deserve much better from their government. ... Mr. Secretary we urge you to reconsider this decision and proceed with the Games as agreed to by the community and your agency."