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The Boston Globe - Lawrence Center for Veterans May Close

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The Boston Globe - Lawrence Center for Veterans May Close

Operating funds are slashed N.E. lawmakers to launch probe

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff

A center in Lawrence that helps veterans start their own businesses warned yesterday that it will have to close its doors because of a lack of funds, prompting two New England lawmakers to launch a probe into the federally funded nonprofit organization that had been financing it.

The Northeast Veterans Business Resource Center has provided night classes and other training to more than 3,000 veterans since it was established in 2004, including an Internet course for members of the Massachusetts National Guard serving in Iraq.

But its funding was recently pulled by the Washington charity established and funded by Congress in 1999 to enhance business opportunities for veterans.

"I had to lay off my staff of three, and, if I don't get some funds, I won't be able to pay the rent this month," Louis J. Celli, president of the Lawrence center and a retired Army master sergeant, told the Globe yesterday.

The center, located on Merrimack Street, does not make a profit and relies on annual federal funds and donations to run its operations, which include courses in computers, resource management, writing proposals, and communication skills. It is one of three such centers across the country.

Another of the centers, which is located in St. Louis, also announced yesterday that it would have to shut down by next month, while the third center, located in Flint, Mich., has also had its operating funds slashed.

Walter G. Blackwell - president of the National Veterans Business Development Corporation, which has funded the centers in the past - said yesterday that it had received only $1.4 million of the $3.7 million it had requested from Congress for this year.

Blackwell said the corporation may also have to close down if it is unable to locate additional funding.

The prospect of losing the three centers has raised the ire of influential lawmakers who believe they provide a critical resource to thousands of veterans, including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who are seeking to become financially self-sufficient.

Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, announced yesterday that the Small Business Committee, of which Kerry is the chairman, would formally investigate the organization's management.

"The Veterans Corporation was established to create a network of these centers," Kerry said in an interview. "They have by all appearances not done that."

Kerry's staff pointed out that the 1999 law that created the corporation stated that it was to "establish and maintain a network of information and assistance centers for use by veterans and the public."

Kerry said he first sought an explanation for funding cuts to the centers last September, but said the staff at the Veterans Corporation had not been fully cooperative.

"We requested information into how the funding was spent," Kerry said. "There has not been a bright light of response."

Blackwell said he was "totally confounded" by the criticism because he has provided Congress with "full and open disclosure of all audits."

With fewer resources than required, he said, the corporation, whose board of directors is appointed by the president, had the three outreach centers compete with other veterans' groups for grants this year. The corporation ultimately gave a total of $350,000 to eight veterans-related groups; $135,000 of it went to the St. Louis and Flint centers, while the Lawrence center did not make the cut, Blackwell said.

Last year, the corporation received $1.5 million from Congress. Of that, $470,000 was provided to the three centers, Blackwell said. The rest of its budget goes to funding the corporation's Washington operations and online training programs for veterans across the country, he said.

"At a time when veterans need more, we are getting less and less," Blackwell said, vowing to work with Kerry's staff to find the best way to help veterans.

Still, Celli, who runs the center in Lawrence, insists that the Veterans Corporation has shown less support for the business centers.

He said he hopes the Lawrence center can continue to help veterans in Massachusetts and beyond.

"Veterans have always had the support of the nation, but not necessarily in terms of economic outreach," he said.

"The average American just assumes that the Veterans Administration will take care of veterans, especially service-disabled veterans, but the truth is when it comes to employment or self-employment or getting back into the economic fabric of the community, there isn't much out there."

Kerry said there are 477,000 veterans in Massachusetts, including 28,000 who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.


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