Bemidji's prospects of hosting a regional veterans home got a lot stronger Saturday as Sanford Health pledged to donate the needed land and assist with the facility's operational costs.
"It's a game-changer," said Rita Albrecht, a Bemidji city councilor and member of the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force.
About 50 people attended a Saturday morning task force meeting during which it was announced that Sanford Health has pledged 15 acres of land near the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center for the veterans home and offered to assist in its operational costs, if the facility is constructed.
"There is a strong commitment to seeing this happen in Bemidji," said Paul Hanson, the president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.
Hanson said the proposal was sent Dec. 7 to Kelby Krabbenhoft, the CEO of Sanford Health, who responded positively within 24 hours.
"There was no hesitation at all," Hanson said.
The task force has been meeting for three years.
"I feel we have really found probably the best location to serve as the veterans (home) property," said Joe Vene, Beltrami County commissioner and chairman of the task force.
Located south of Sanford's WoodsEdge Senior Living campus, 1000 Anne St. NW, the veterans home would be located near Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and have easy access to transit. It also would be located near the new North Country Park, which boasts trails and other park amenities.
"I don't think you can say anything bad about it," Vene said of the veterans home site. "There are no negatives."
The two northern-most sites that now have veterans home are in Fargo, N.D., and Silver Bay, Minn., on the western shore of Lake Superior. Vene said if you were to draw a line between those two sites, there are more than 35,000 veterans living north of that line.
"We just feel they are underserved," Vene said.
There are 17 Minnesota communities that meet the criteria for a veterans home. Bemidji is believed to be about 10th on that list, mostly because it doesn't meet the Veterans Administration requirement to be within an hour's drive of a VA hospital. First on the list is Little Falls.
"Why put the home where the hospital is? Why not put the home where the veterans are?" said Lori Paris, the president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.
Next up: the Legislature
The land donation and offer of operational assistance was welcome news, but task force members said there still is much work ahead.
Not only does the community need to have land and have evidence that a Bemidji home would be cheaper to operate than all other potential sites, but supporters need about $10 million for a local match to secure the federal grant, said Dr. Ralph Morris, task force vice chairman.
"I think, today, we're more than halfway there," Morris said.
The task force is seeking $10 million in state bonding money, which would be the local match.
Three local legislators who attended the meeting agreed that an appropriation from the Legislature this year is unlikely, but urged supporters to keep working.
Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said he has requested a Senate hearing on the project, hoping that even if the fulfillment of the request does not happen now that supporters will at least have a chance to make their case.
Carlson also conversations with Larry Shellito, the Minnesota Veterans Affairs commissioner, about the project have been "extremely encouraging."
"We're not 10 on the list; we're much higher," Carlson said. "You'll continue to see our project rise to the top."
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said he has requested a hearing in the House, but did not think it would be heard this year.
"We'll keep pushing it," said Persell, adding that he thinks the project is at the halfway point. "We've got some momentum going."
Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, said the important thing was to get the proposal in the hopper and keep advancing it through the system.
"I think it's vital we keep the process moving," he said.
Local veterans and supporters said they would fill buses and attend the hearings to show their support.
"I hope you can feel the energy," said Beltrami County Commissioner Richard Anderson about the support building for the project.
Julie Harris, Beltrami County Veterans Service officer, recalled that the community had to fight to get the VA Outpatient Clinic.
Bemidji got the clinic and Bemidji will get a veterans home too, she said.
"I think we've got the will and the persistence," she said.