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Support for vets home strong in Bemidji area

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss only heard about Beltrami County's effort to site a Minnesota veterans home two days ago, but he couldn't miss Friday's rally of support.

More than 300 people, many of them veterans wearing veteran uniform caps, came Friday evening to sign a commitment of support letter to be sent to Minnesota's congressional delegation that represents Bemidji.

The community seeks state and federal permission to construct a veterans nursing home facility, typically a facility of 90 beds at $23 million, to serve northern Minnesota's veterans population and located in Bemidji, a regional center of health care providers.

"I wouldn't miss this meeting for anything, because this is for veterans," Stauss said after he signed a large version of the letter.

Stauss, a Vietnam veteran, joins a host of regional veterans service clubs who have given their support to the project. Members from Thief River Falls serve on a veterans home task force, and Cass Lake Mayor Wayne LaDuke came Friday to sign the commitment of support.

"Now we have the need for teamwork," said Stauss. "No Democrats, no Republicans, this is for the veterans. This is for the people who have served our country. So let's work together to make sure this can happen.

"This is great for Bemidji," he added, "but more important it's great for the region and even more important than that, it's great for the veterans."

Held at the Bemidji National Guard Armory, a number of dignitaries signed a large-sized letter at the head table, with a row of flags as a backdrop, while the 300 members of the public who attended were asked to sign copies of the letter posted on walls on both sides of the Armory hall.

"The support for veterans being shown today is overwhelming," said Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, chairman of the project task force. "We are here to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to veterans and their families. Our community, our state, our nation are grateful to veterans who have served, who are serving or who will serve, and so dedicating their lives in defense of freedom."

The Beltrami County-supported effort seeks authority from the Minnesota Legislature, and then must submit a pre-design application to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by April 15.

The process might take years, as the project moves up in priority, but local officials put some stock in the $825 billion economic stimulus package in Congress that might accelerate projects such as veteran homes ready to go.

The task force has secured a local architectural firm to do the pre-design application pro bono.

The Legislature has authorized an assessment of veterans home facilities in Minnesota, which local officials say will point to a gap in services in northern Minnesota, but that study most likely won't be done before the April 15 deadline.

Should Beltrami County be successful, the federal VA would pay for 65 percent of construction costs, leaving the rest as a local match, either from the community or the state.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, authored a bill Thursday which would use state capital bonding "to establish a veterans facility in the city of Bemidji that provides both veterans geriatric supervised living and veterans mental health services." No amount is specified, as the amount of local funding, if any, has been determined.

The bill is co-authored by Sens. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, who signed the commitment of support Friday, and Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, bedecked in his Legion color guard uniform and a signed of the commitment of support, is author of the companion bill in the Minnesota House, with Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, a co-author.

"We advocate the location and siting of a veterans home in northern Minnesota where today we find a large population of undeserved citizens, and along with them, a significant number of veterans whose needs have not been or not being fully met," Vene said.

The only veterans homes that serve northern Minnesota are at Fergus Falls and Silver Bay. Meanwhile, Willmar and Montevideo also seek permission for veterans homes in their communities.

Such a facility will boost economic development through jobs, retraining, nursing and construction, said Skoe.

"But this is really about providing services in an underserved area for vets," said Skoe, who sits on a Senate veterans panel that will consider the bill. "When you at the coverage map of Minnesota, there's a big blank up here, and we have got a great case to be made bringing a nursing home into this area to provide services to the veterans who work and reside in northern Minnesota."

The project also has the support of the three area American Indian Reservations -- Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth -- with veterans color guards from all three at Friday's ceremonies.

Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose, who signed the commitment of support, said he and tribal leaders from 10 other tribes had lunch Monday with Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"When it was my turn to speak, I spoke highly of supporting the Bemidji community with the veterans home," LaRose said. "This veterans home is the central location for White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake, and it's going to be a big benefit for the Bemidji community and the surrounding communities."

Vene read the letter of support, which will be sent to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., either Al Franken or Norm Coleman, and U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson,DFL-7th District, and Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District. He also invited boards of local governments to pass resolutions of support.

"This is truly a regional effort," said Sen. Olson, the first signatory of the commitment of support. "I have high hopes for this project. We can certainly make no promises at this stage."

So many people have already been involved in bringing the project forward, she said. "It's been entirely a volunteer effort up to this point. That speaks to the spirit of our veterans, the willingness to give up Saturday mornings to work on this."

Persell and Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, also spoke and signed the letter, as well as a number of others, including Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann.

Veterans service clubs from through out the region were represented. Vene sang the National Anthem, and the Kingbird Signers of the Red Lake Nation provided drum group flag and veterans songs.

The task force meets again at 10 a.m. today in the County Administration Building.