A need in northwest Minnesota: Senate majority leader visits Bemidji to talk veterans home initiative
State Senate leadership met Wednesday with members of the Northwest Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force in Bemidji to discuss the project's status and what to expect in the next legislative session.
The roundtable event was the latest in a nearly decade-long effort by local officials to secure funding from state and federal levels for a veterans home that would serve the northwest Minnesota region. The push is based on the need to serve a veteran population that was estimated to be close to 30,000 in 2015.
In recent years, Beltrami County has partnered with leaders in the Montevideo area, who are also working to create a veterans home for their region. The main strategy behind the joint initiative is to collect federal funding that would provide the state with a facility with 140 beds — or in this case, split the number between two buildings.
However, the federal funding won't be available to the state until the Legislature acts and provides funding of its own.
Representing the Legislature on Wednesday in Bemidji was Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, along with District 2 and 5 Sens. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, and Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, as well as District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington. Speaking on behalf of the task force, meanwhile, were Beltrami County Commissioners Jim Lucachick and Richard Anderson, Beltrami County Veterans Service Officer Scotty Allison and former commissioner and task force member Joe Vene.
At the start of the meeting, Vene explained to the state officials why the veterans home was needed in the immediate future.
"Soldiers have many hidden wounds that need to be taken care of. Traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and a variety of substance abuse problems," Vene said. "Doctors who've done post-deployment physicals on these troops will need a lot of care in the time to come."
According to Allison, the need is partially based on an aging population, with his data showing 77.2 percent of veterans in the region are age 55 and older. Additionally, Allison brought up the factor of distance, as the nearest veterans home now is in Fergus Falls.
"We feel entirely justified that this veterans home should be built in Bemidji, which has become the regional center for northwest Minnesota," Vene said.
"I think we're all on the same page that this is the right place to have it," Gazelka said regarding the location.
The estimated cost of the proposed facility is $30 million, and task force members stated the target is for a building that can support 75 beds. If constructed, the building would be a mixture of a nursing home and an assisted living facility.
Since the project's announcement, the task force has received a section of land worth about $1 million in a donation from Sanford Health. Also, in March, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners pledged $1 million toward the initiative.
At the state level, legislators at Wednesday's meeting said they're hopeful that more financial assistance can come from St. Paul.
"When I first came on, I didn't know as much about the project. But, as I get to know more about it, I've become more passionate about it. I'd say this is priority No. 1 for me, this is something that should definitely get done," Eichorn said. "I'm excited about the potential for this project. I think with Sen. Utke and myself, we'll have two people working hard on this."
"It has been one of my top priorities down there, and I can tell you that my leadership was getting tired of me going into their offices and telling them how important this is," Bliss said.
From a technical standpoint, Gazelka said getting the project included in legislation next year will depend on bonding and negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton.
"This is on our radar," Gazelka said. "The question is will we have another bonding bill this year. I can tell you I'm open about it, but it depends on how we navigate through mediation with the governor."