BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Two weeks ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington gave final approval to plans for the 27th annual veterans' "Golden Age Games" in Buffalo.
Then Tuesday, the V.A. abruptly said it was postponing the Games "indefinitely," as part of an effort to be "good stewards of taxpayer dollars."
Organizers in Western New York are angry, and they're not buying what the V.A. is saying.
Golden Age Games local chairman Patrick Welch said, "From a veteran's standpoint, as I read that letter, it's just more Washington bull, coming out of them. The old 'C.Y.A.' program. And I think it's disgusting and despicable."
The committee headed up by Welch, a retired Marine sergeant, has spent the past six years, since 2007, recruiting sponsors, fundraising, and booking hotels and athletic facilities.
There were supposed to be 16 different athletic contests, held from May 30 to June 4, at nine different venues in Western New York, including Erie Community College's Flickinger Center, the convention center, the Audubon Golf Course and Lasalle Park along Buffalo's waterfront.
Welch tells News 4's Rachel Kingston the local group was first informed of the V.A.'s decision on Monday, March 18, during a meeting at the Buffalo V.A. Medical Center director's office.
"We were informed at that point in time [that] the games were 'temporarily suspended.' Nobody knew exactly what 'temporarily' meant," Welch said. Then, the next day, the letter arrived.
When News 4 called the V.A.'s Washington headquarters, the only response we received was an emailed copy of that same letter:
"VA has increased its focus on conference, training and related event spending, to include the National Veterans Golden Age Games (NVGAG), because we are committed to serving as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. To that end, in an effort to ensure we meet the high standards of excellence, good governance and efficiency, we evaluate each event, program and initiative for alignment with the department's core mission and priorities."
The letter says the decision to scrap the Games in Buffalo was made " after going through a comprehensive assessment."
If that's really true, the Western New York veterans' community and tourism officials are asking, then why did the V.A. put its stamp of approval on the contracts and funding just two weeks ago?
Visit Buffalo Niagara President and CEO Dottie Gallagher-Cohen said, "We have 1,000 athletes that have been training all year to come to Buffalo, a number of venues that have been reserved for three years, waiting for them to get here; a tremendous number of volunteers that have been working on this for the past couple years. And it doesn't seem a reasonable explanation to me, that after you make a commitment to come to a community... six weeks out, that you would cancel. They haven't canceled other events in other communities."
The impression given by the V.A. -- that this is a question of funding -- makes even less sense, when you consider that the V.A. is one of few federal departments that is completely exempt from the sequester.
"We could turn around and look, and say it's the old 'Buffalo complex.' Because it's my belief that if these games were being held in Hawaii or Texas or California, there'd be no issue. The games would go on, and the funding would flow," Welch added.
"It took us four years to get authorization of the Games, in 2011. And ever since 2011 we've got hundreds of people spending thousands of volunteer hours working to put these Games together," he said.
The Golden Age Games are for U.S. military veterans age 55 and older. Because of that age bracket, they typically bring together large groups of vets who served in Vietnam. The games are also a qualifying event for the Senior Olympics.
"The joy of looking in a fellow veteran's face when they win a medal; or the joy of looking in their face just because they get out there and compete; and the camaraderie that you see with veterans when they get together is like no other."
The 100,000-strong local veterans' community just lost that opportunity, and Welch says that's a serious blow to morale.
The six-day competition would have been a huge boost to Western New York's tourism industry. Visit Buffalo Niagara estimates the 1,000 competitors would have been joined by at least twice that many spectators, from all over the country -- people who would have spent money on hotels, restaurants, shopping and entertainment.
Gallagher-Cohen said, "In total, we were expecting about 2,500 spectators. Our projections on the economic impact of that were $2.2 million to the local economy, which is a significant impact."
We asked Welch and Gallagher-Cohen what their messages are, to the V.A.
"Complete your commitment to Western New York, and get here," Gallagher-Cohen said.
"How dare you," added Welch. "[It's] a slap in the face to all the veterans in this country, and particularly those that are going to participate in this and look forward to it every year."
Organizers have little
hope the V.A. will reverse its decision, even though Congressman Brian Higgins has sent a letter to V.A. urging it to reconsider.
The 1,000 veteran athletes who were supposed to come here would have been the largest number of participants' in the Games' history.
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