By Matthew J. Liedke
BEMIDJI -- It took leaders from every level of government to get a veterans home in Bemidji and on Thursday many elected officials who saw the process through were on hand to celebrate construction starting.
Dozens of officials attending the groundbreaking took turns holding golden shovels, including those who pushed for the project for well over a decade. Local officials, such as Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick, began organizing and planning the push for a veterans home in the community back in 2007.
In the years since, local officials made several trips to St. Paul to lobby the Legislature for funding, which is a requirement to get federal support. After more than 10 years, the Minnesota Legislature passed a $1.5 billion bonding bill in 2018 that included $12.4 million for a veterans home in Bemidji.
To ensure the project -- estimated at $45.5 million -- was fully funded, local leaders launched a fundraising campaign at the regional level. In total, $2.3 million was raised from government units, organizations and private donors, including $1 million from Beltrami County and $250,000 from the city of Bemidji.
"This project wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the local support," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. said during Thursday's event. "Because at the federal level, when you look at these things, you ask if there is local support. In this case, there was so much local support that we were able to get almost $30 million in federal funding."
The $29.6 million in federal funding was approved for Bemidji this year, meaning the final hurdle had been crossed financially for the project. It was one of three Minnesota veterans home projects receiving funding, with the other two located in Montevideo and Preston.
In Bemidji, the new home will be built on the north side of the city, near the Sanford Health campus. Sanford Health donated nearly 15 acres of land, worth $1 million, for the facility.
The home will be 80,634 square feet with four sections, with each section holding 18 private rooms, for a total of 72. Each of the four sections will have its own nursing center, porch and outdoor space.
The four sections will be connected by a large center structure. In the center, there will be an open town center plaza, with a café, therapy space, a meditation room, a theater and a library. The building will also have a basement section for supplies, utilities and kitchen space.
"This facility, which will be beautiful, means more veterans will be able to get the help they need and have the benefits they should have without going halfway across the state," Klobuchar said.
There are an estimated 27,000 veterans living in northwest Minnesota and currently, the closest veterans home is in Fergus Falls. Of the northwest Minnesota veterans, nearly 75% are older than 55.
"There are going to be 72 veterans that are going to get the best care that they deserve and this government promised them," said Congressman Pete Stauber, R-MN8. "This is a great opportunity for you veterans who are here today wearing your hats so proudly. We are so indebted to you."
"There is no greater contribution than the contribution our service members make in serving our country and keeping us free," said Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach, R-MN7. "We owe it to them to make sure we're serving them back."
According to Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs officials, work will begin in the near future with footings for the home expected to be completed in December, and a structure will take shape in March 2022. Completion is then anticipated in April, with an opening to follow in June 2023.
To open the building, MDVA Commissioner Larry Herke said a staff of 140 will be needed. Once it does open, eligible residents will include a Minnesota veteran, a spouse of an eligible veteran, or a Gold Star parent.
Residents must also have the clinical needs of a skilled nurse or domiciliary care.
To close Thursday's event, outgoing Beltrami County Veterans Services Officer Scotty Allison, who will retire next year, quoted George Washington in his speech.
"We must always heed the words of our first commander-in-chief, who said in 1798: 'the willingness with which our young people will fight in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars are treated and appreciated by the country,'" Allison said.