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At the finish line? Bonding bill includes Bemidji-area projects, awaits governor’s pen

BEMIDJI—Unlike the last legislative session, a bonding bill passed in the late hours includes funding for Bemidji projects, including a new building at BSU and a future veterans home to serve the area.

With the session winding down Sunday night, the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bonding bill with $825 million for public works construction projects. The legislation passed the Senate in a 42-25 vote and was then returned to the House, where it was approved 113-13.

Of the funding included in the bill, $32 million was set aside for the construction of three new veterans homes, one in Bemidji and the others in Preston and Montevideo. The legislation divided the funding as $12.4 million for Bemidji, $9.4 million for Montevideo and $10.2 million for Preston.

In April, members of the House floated the idea of using excess funds from an account dedicated to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to build the veterans homes. However, this idea was removed from the bill, and, if signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, the veterans homes will utilize general bonding dollars.

According to proponents of the Bemidji project, veteran homes are built with the state covering 35 percent of the cost and the federal government providing the remaining 65 percent.

When a state pledges funding for a veterans home, the project is then placed on a federal list.

In Bemidji, the proposal is to build the veterans home on the city's north side, on land donated by Sanford Health. Backers of the project home have been working for more than a decade to locate a facility in Bemidji, as northwest Minnesota has nearly 27,000 veterans.

Another project in the works for several years is the proposed demolition and replacement of Hagg-Sauer Hall at BSU.

That project also received dollars in the bill, with the legislation appropriating $22.5 million.

The goal for BSU is to replace the current 82,000 square-foot structure with a smaller, 27,700 square-foot academic learning center, which will retain the Hagg-Sauer name. BSU officials have backed the project as the current building has sustained water damage and also has poor accessibility for disabled students.

According to Scott Faust, executive director of communications at BSU, the new building will also offer improved technology and flexible work space. Faust also said the project will include adding new faculty offices and other improvements in four other campus buildings.

"All of us at Bemidji State are extremely pleased that the Legislature has approved a bonding bill which includes funding for our Hagg-Sauer Hall replacement project," Faust said in a statement to the Pioneer. "BSU has been working toward this goal for more than five years, so it is a relief to be included in the bill that now moves on to Gov. Dayton."

Another regional education project receiving funding was improvements at the Red Lake School district. Included in the bill is $14 million for the design and construction of a connection structure between the Red Lake Early Childhood Center and the Red Lake Elementary School. Additionally, the funding will be used for renovations to various classrooms, labs and support rooms as well as updates to the mechanical systems and the cafeteria.

In statements to the Pioneer, the Bemidji area legislative delegation, all Republicans, said they were please the Bemidji-area projects were included in the funding.

District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell called the bill a "great win for our area."

"It includes funding for maintenance and repairs to both the one-room schoolhouse at Northwest Angle Inlet School and Red Lake School as well as funding for the Bemidji State University learning center," Grossell said. "I am especially proud of securing state funding for the veterans home in Bemidji that will serve veterans across northern Minnesota, including five Native American reservations. It brings these veterans homes another step closer to reality."

"This is a great day for Bemidji," District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington said in a press release. "Those projects have been muddling along in the proposal state for years—long before I was in the House—and I'm proud we have brought them to the brink of enactment."

According to District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, securing funding for a veterans home in Bemidji was his top priority for the last two years in the Legislature.

"I'm very proud that we got that done," Eichorn said. "The BSU project was also very hard fought for. We're proud to carry it across the finish line. It's going to be great for additional learning space and I think it's something that the community, like the veterans home, fought very hard for."

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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