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Task force to keep vets home in public eye

Assured the 2009 Legislature won't take action on Minnesota veterans home proposals, a Beltrami County task force prepared Saturday for a summer hiatus.

Still, members want to keep the issue of a 90-bed Minnesota veterans home in northern Minnesota before the public eye.

Dr. Ralph Morris, task force vice chairman, suggested a float during the annual July 4 Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival parade.

"That would give us some presence," the retired state Department of Health official said.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, and task force chairman, said his pickup truck has a hitch, and Morris said he had a trailer, so members may pull a trailer with a Northern Minnesota Veterans Home banner during the holiday parade, and pass out brochures about the project.

But while the task force -- which had only nine members attend Saturday morning -- doesn't want to lose steam over the summer, it's the lawmakers that have to be convinced a Bemidji project is viable. That hinges on a state Department of Veterans Affairs-commissioned study that does a needs assessment for the state.

That report is isn't expected until later this year, but task force members hope it will point out that northern Minnesota severely lacks veterans services. The nearest state veterans homes are in Fergus Falls and Silver Bay.

Vene briefed members Saturday morning on a presentation some members made last month at hearing of the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Budget and Policy Division, which heard proposals from five communities.

"All of us support veterans health care needs everywhere," Vene said, but the state budget will limit the number of facilities. Among competitors is Brainerd, which hopes to convert a part of the former state hospital there.

Cass County has offered a resolution of support for both Brainerd and Bemidji facilities, Vene said. "I'm comfortable with that at this point."

Bemidji's proposal will be unique, he added. "We're building a continuum of services for the region -- a beyond the walls concept."

The panel was impressed with Bemidji's proposal, Vene said, which was further developed than several others. One, a mental health veterans facility at Willmar, does have $5 million included in the House's capital bonding bill, but no facilities were funded in the Senate's bill.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs makes the final decision on new veterans homes, and funds up to 65 percent of construction. The Beltrami County plan hopes for state bonding and in-kind services to fill the rest of what could be a $30 million project.

"We had a degree of specificity that others did not," Vene said.

"The state study will hopefully be done this summer," Vene said. "That does not mean we pull back."

He called for task force members to volunteer for "touring teams" that would take a prepared PowerPoint presentation on the project throughout the region to veterans clubs and others to keep public awareness for the project.

They will also ask for resolutions of support. Vene said he has 20 resolutions so far, including from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe with others pending from White Earth and Red Lake tribes, and that he will pitch to Hubbard County this week. Cass, Becker and Pennington counties also have resolutions submitted, as well as host Beltrami County.

Bemidji City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen will a resolution from the Bemidji City Council, Vene said.

Cliff Tweedale, Headwaters Regional Development Commission executive director, which serves as a clearinghouse for the task force, suggested that an executive committee be formed of task force committee chairman to meet monthly to keep the project moving forward. Tweedale would then keep all members up to date via e-mail after executive committee meetings.

"We should have a genesis of the touring groups with the task force," Vene said.

The executive committee "needs to develop a work plan," Tweedale said. "It needs a timeline for responding to the state study, for a fundraising plan. It would be a good way to connect people to a process."

So far, all work has been voluntary. MJ Architectural Studios Inc. of Bemidji has provided pro bono services to provide a pre-design application for the project.

But now Vene said some fundraising will be needed for further phases, such as publicity and public awareness. To that end, he called on donations and presented a personal check for $100 to start if off.