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Bemidji seeks state funding for proposed northern Minn. veterans home

Former Minnesota state representative John Persell asks a question on Wednesday during a meeting of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation about the proposed Northern Minnesota Veterans Home. Jordan Shearer / Forum News Service

BEMIDJI, Minn.—The Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee held a meeting in Bemidji Wednesday, Jan. 17, before an audience of veterans to discuss a project on the minds of locals for more than a decade.

During the meeting, legislators, including District 5 and District 2 Sens. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, were presented with reasons why Bemidji should be the location for a new veterans home in Minnesota.

The session was held a day after Gov. Mark Dayton released his list of projects to be included in this session's bonding package, which did not include funding for a new veterans home.

"The governor released his bonding proposals and his spokesperson said the reason that the veterans home wasn't included was because the state hasn't fixed a location in the state," Beltrami County Veteran Services Officer Scotty Allison said. "So, I'm going to help with that today."

According to information provided by Allison, there are nearly 30,000 veterans that live in the counties of Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau. Of those veterans, 77.2 percent are age 55 or older.

Allison noted the area is also home to a high concentration of Native American veterans and that the nearest home for any veteran is in Fergus Falls, a 128-mile drive from Bemidji.

"We have yet to honor the moral obligation of taking care of our veterans who have gone to war and served our country in defense of our freedom," said Joe Vene, a project advocate, former Beltrami County Commissioner and U.S. Army veteran. "I think the time has come for this to happen, and I hope that our governor, or any who succeed him, can understand that the northwest Minnesota veterans home needs to be part of a capital bonding package."

In his address to the committee, Eichorn labeled the proposed home as one of his top priorities.

"This is something I've become passionate about, because I've seen the great amount of passion that this community has shown for this project," he said. "This is something we're going to fight very hard for, to make sure it gets across the finish line. I see it as more than a project of great regional significance, but a project of great meaning as well."

Project funding

The estimated cost of the Bemidji home is $45 million, Allison said Wednesday, with the state share coming to roughly $15.7 million. The rest of the funding would come through a match by the federal government.

However, before federal dollars can be obtained, the Minnesota Legislature must provide bonding for the home. From there, Allison said it goes into a national queue and federal officials will decide whether the project gets funding.

"It starts with the Legislature, we all know that," said former District 5A Rep. John Persell of Bemidji, who was at Wednesday's meeting. "We've all carried bills for this, myself included and (current District 5A) Rep. (Matt) Bliss. For the last 10 years, we've carried bills. We can act now. I appreciated working with you in the past, and I would appreciate if you consider this."

At Tuesday's Beltrami County Commission meeting, Bliss, R-Pennington, said there is already a great deal of support in St. Paul.

"We believe we have the support of both chambers in the Legislature right now," Bliss said. "So, we need to get an awareness campaign of local people going toward the governor. We need to let him know how important this is to the area."

If funding for the project is approved this session, Allison said the soonest construction could begin is 2021. The plan is to construct the home on 15 acres of land that has been donated by Sanford Health near the Bemidji Sanford campus.

As part of the effort to create a veterans home in Bemidji, local officials have partnered with personnel in Montevideo, Minnesota, which is seeking funds for its own facility. The partnership is based on the amount of a federal match, which is enough to fund about 140 beds. The idea is to split the number of beds, resulting in two new veterans homes for the two communities.

As a way to garner support for having one of the new veterans home in Bemidji, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners pledged $1 million in financial support. Additionally, 33 regional entities have signed letters of support toward the project.

At Wednesday's meeting, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht spoke, giving more reasons why Bemidji is the right place for such a facility.

"I think this community is uniquely positioned to have a veterans home. Our partnership with Sanford Health, our four-year university (BSU) and Northwest Technical College that's putting out registered nurses. We also have a great airport here, so we can fly specialists, doctors and family members in and out," she said. "We also have the Northern Dental Access Center, which is a low-income dental clinic. For veterans, sometimes it can be hard to get dental health care because it's not always covered. So, this community is ready to step up."

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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