WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are again working to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to sell its multi-million dollar hotel in France to pay for more relevant needs, but American Legion officials are now standing in their way.
They say the plan is really a get-rich-quick scheme for a foreign developer that could jeopardize World War I artifacts and cheat American taxpayers out of a valuable property.
“This is a short-sighted attempt and a quick fix to larger issues within VA,” said Lou Celli, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “Ultimately, by selling the building, veterans lose.”
Pershing Hall, which sits less than a mile from the Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris, has been managed by VA since 1991 and owned by the federal government since 1935, when Legion officials transferred ownership of the site in hopes of establishing a permanent war memorial and veterans assistance site.
That didn’t happen. The site still houses numerous works of art and historic artifacts, including items related to Gen. John Pershing, head of U.S. expeditionary forces on the Western Front in World War I.
In the 1990s, after years of neglect, the site was converted into a luxury hotel and spa. Operations are handled by a French firm, with VA receiving periodic lease payments. It is also supposed to serve as a meeting place for American veterans groups traveling abroad, although veterans organizations have complained that access is severely limited.
That has led to questions about the value of the site, both as a practical asset for VA services and as a potential windfall for the government if it’s sold to a private developer. Multiple lawmakers in recent years have advocated selling the site and using the money to pay for more practical projects within the U.S.
On Thursday, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. — a longtime critic of the site — again offered legislation to sell the building.
“While Pershing Hall is probably a terrific hotel, it makes no sense that the VA keeps a luxury hotel on its books,” he said during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. “The VA needs to focus its time and resources on its core mission, taking care of our nation’s veterans.”
Coffman’s measure would require the preservation of the site’s historic artifacts and give proceeds of any sale to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Legion officials would rather see ownership of the historic site transferred to the ABMC.
In the past, the group has been open to the idea of a sale, but came out strongly against the idea this week. They say a 99-year lease on the property with the current hotel firm makes a sale to an new outside buyer largely impractical.
The building has been valued at more than $82 million, but Legion officials estimate the lease decreases the realistic sale price to less than $9 million. If the current hotel firm purchases the property — as they have stated they want to do — they can break the lease and sell the land at the higher rate.
“We never expected this building to be used as a hotel,” Celli said during testimony before the committee. “We are disheartened that Pershing Hall is not a military memorial or space for veterans … but even more concerned with the blatant disregard to the second- or third-order effects of selling this building to a private organization.”
Rather than allowing a private firm to profit, Celli said, federal officials should look for ways to improve the site. He said VA is “not capable of appropriately maintaining the location” but said another federal agency like the ABMC may do a better job
Coffman said he thinks the government should cut its losses and get whatever money out of the site possible.
Despite repeated legislative debate on the site in recent years, Coffman’s proposal and other related sale plans have received only partial support from Congress. Committee officials did not say whether they will schedule a full panel vote on the issue in coming weeks.
The debate comes as lawmakers and VA officials are considering closing hundreds of vacant and underused department facilities nationwide in an effort to save money and better align department resources with veterans needs.