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Veterans Home Committee continues work to secure facility

Work continues to plan for a Minnesota Veterans Home in Bemidji, although prospects of securing one soon appears to be dimming.

"We believe this can happen one day," Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, who chairs the task force working on the proposal, said Saturday morning.

"Public support is overwhelming," he said. "This is important . We need to take care of our veterans."

The task force had hoped to meet a federal April 15 deadline to file an application, as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has final say on new nursing home facilities. If approved, the feds would pay up to 65 percent of construction costs.

Local organizers had hoped to seek state permission and state bonding dollars to make up the remainder, which could total $25 million or more for a 90-bed nursing home. State permission must likely won't come this year, however.

The Senate's $367 million capital bonding proposal includes no funding for veterans homes, but the House's $200 million bonding bill has $5 million for a 90-bed veterans specialized mental health nursing home in Willmar.

That city tried and failed to get funding last year, but Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, has his bases covered this year with funding in the bonding bill and a mirror proposal in the omnibus veterans affairs bill.

The community proposes a $21 million facility, with 65 percent federal funding, $5 million from the state and about $3 million in local funding.

Still to come is a Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs-commissioned study of veterans home needs across Minnesota, upon which the Legislature will focus veterans facility funding.

"I feel confident Bemidji will come out very strongly on demographics that they will look at," County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick said Saturday morning at a meeting of the task force at the County Administration Building.

Lucachick said efforts will continue to complete a pre-design application that will be submitted to the Legislature in the next few weeks, and he said he would try to schedule hearings before legislative panels yet this session so that the idea of a veterans home in Bemidji is on the table.

"We will need a strong contingent to go to the Legislature when it is needed," Vene said. "We know Willmar is ahead of us, but we will keep on working. ... Our persistence will prevail as the realization is we are an underserved and unserved veterans population."

There is a void of veterans homes in northern Minnesota, with none between Fergus Falls and Silver Bay. Local supporters also believe that the northern Minnesota home will offer programming unique to Minnesota.

Mike Johnston of MJ Architectural Studios Inc. of Bemidji, the pro bono architect on the pre-design application, showed task force members his study of space needs and preliminary drawings of what the facility could look like.

The 55,991 square-foot schematic has a central area with three "V" shaped wings, each with two 15-room subwings of individual veterans rooms, Johnston said. Adjacent rooms can be opened to allow living accommodations for spouses in an assisted living arrangement.

Each wing has it own kitchen/dining area, with meals prepared in the central area. The central core area will house "beyond the walls" services, such as relocating the veterans outpatient clinic, a town square space, major kitchen, and adult day care area and what Dr. Ralph Morris called a "medical motel."

"The concept would allow a short-term medical motel for traveling veterans," Morris said, offering housing for vets on vacation to this area who need medical assistance.

"That is what we believe we will offer as unique services, as we are a regional hub and we will go beyond the walls of a skilled nursing facility," said Morris, a retired state Department of Health physician.

Johnston said the living areas would all be on one level, while there would be a basement under the core area, and that area could be buildable up if added function is needed.

While the facility would take up less than 2 acres, he recommends a 20-acre site for green space and room for future expansion of living areas.

"It's very forward-kind of thinking," said task force member Sandy Bensen, a North Country Health Services vice president.

Lucachick, a self-employed architect, said that at an average price of $250 a square foot, with 100,000 square feet, the construction costs could be estimated at $25 million, adding $5 million for contingencies, to reveal about a $30 million project.

An actual site has yet to be determined, with the task force saying it's premature to even provide a short list of possible sites. The veterans home, however, should be located close to medical services such as the veterans clinic, North Country Regional Hospital and MeritCare Clinic-Bemidji.

To this point, no taxpayer dollars have been spent on the proposed project, Lucachick said. "It has come with 100 percent volunteer effort -- no taxpayer money in design or professional fees."

Johnston is near the end of what was asked for him to provide on a pro bono basis, and Lucachick suggested carrying that to completion. The pre-design application will be rough, with no electrical or mechanical work or any typically in a pre-design application such as an energy analysis or heating estimations.

"We will submit an application to just get on the radar screen," Lucachick said.

The application will suffice until the results of the state study are in, expected late this summer or fall, Vene said. "We won't be spending money for something we don't know if we need yet."

The task force will tentatively meet again May 2, most likely after any legislative presentations.