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Wadena seeks aid as tornado forces out residents, businesses

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Wadena is losing residents and businesses, city leaders told a Minnesota Senate committee Monday night in seeking state aid to rebuild facilities lost in a 2010 tornado.

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"We have been planning for 21 months," Mayor Wayne Wolden told members of the Senate committee that recommends public works project funding. "This is the time to complete this."

Four businesses have closed in the past six months and it is hard to attract new ones, he said, partially because amenities such as offered in a community center and swimming pool were destroyed.

The city seeks $4.75 million from the state for a $10 million project. Insurance and federal funds would provide $2.6 million and local fundraising would add $1.9 million. The state gave Wadena $750,000 last year to plan the project.

The Wadena Regional Wellness Center would combine a community center and swimming pool, both of which were destroyed by the June 17, 2010, tornado. A hockey facility and the high school also were destroyed, but are being rebuilt separately.

The Wadena request is among hundreds that seek billions of dollars in construction and repair projects across Minnesota. The House's proposal is expected to be released Tuesday, and the Senate plans to finish its plan in the next few days.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recommends spending $775 million, a mixture of new construction and fixing facilities such as state-owned college buildings. Republicans who control the Legislature say they are more likely to approve something close to $500 million, emphasizing repairs.

The public works projects would be financed by the state selling bonds, and repaying them over two or three decades.

The governor recommends borrowing the $4.75 million for Wadena's project to include aquatics facilities, fitness space, gymnasium, a commons area and locker rooms.

Nursing Director Kathy Kleen of Tri-County Hospital in Wadena said the hospital has not had a pool available for therapy for two and a half years.

With the closest facility 60 miles away, many of the Wadena area's low-income residents cannot afford the trip, Kleen said.

Her daughter, Anna, said she was fortunate that her family could afford to drive her to a Twin Cities facility when she was paralyzed in a car accident at age 16.

"When you are in warm water and are paralyzed," Anna Kleen said, "you feel like you can walk again."

Her mother said the hospital would expect about 20 therapy patients to use a pool in the new facility each week. The elderly and others who could benefit from a warm-water pool also could use it, she added.

Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, said that elimination of reconstructing a hockey arena as part of the state request brought the cost down to something she could support. She said it is important for other senators to understand that it is not a request like some cities bring, to build a new facility; this proposal is to replace tornado-destroyed facilities.

"Their community was blown up," the senator said.

Businesses owners have been the project's biggest supporters, she said.

The tornado destroyed more than 100 homes and damaged 300 others, the mayor told senators.

While lawmakers are considering Wadena's request, they also are looking at others, including a state Capitol renovation pegged at $241 million.

Some leaders have suggested doing that work apart from the regular bonding bill.

"It is a very separate measure," Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday.

Many projects have shorter life spans, he said, but repairing the Capitol is "a once in a century" project. So, he added, it makes sense to handle them in separate bills.

If the full Capitol project is tackled, everyone from the governor to legislators to the attorney general would be forced out of the Capitol for three or four years.

Marble is falling off the outside of the building, paint is peeling inside and outdated systems throughout the building need to be replaced, renovation supporters say.

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