Preston Mayor Kurt Reicks, front, shows Sen. Jeremy Miller, center, and Sen. Dave Senjem, right, the field atop the hill where Preston's water tower stands that may become the site of the new state veterans home if the legislature chooses.
Preston Mayor Kurt Reicks, front, shows Sen. Jeremy Miller, center, and Sen. Dave Senjem, right, the field atop the hill where Preston's water tower stands that may become the site of the new state veterans home if the legislature chooses. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWS

Wheels on the bus hit the road last Monday, Feb. 12 as the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee toured the proposed state veterans’ home sites in Spring Valley and Preston, then heard presentations on each at the Fillmore County office building. 

The first stop found the committee members — led by State Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona — on West Tracy Road in Spring Valley, where they stood facing a field on the north side of the road just west of First Baptist Church, and the second stop took them to the hilltop on Golfview overlooking the northwestern corner of Preston near the water tower that can be seen behind the Branding Iron restaurant. Both communities propose to donate land and infrastructure if a veterans home is built in Fillmore County.

Local legislators touring with the committee included Rochester Sens. Carla Nelson and Dave Senjem, along with legislators and staff hailing from across the state.  Upon their arrival at the office building, Miller asked veterans in the gallery to stand, and the rest of the gathered people applauded them.

“We’re here talking about a veterans’ home because we had the great honor of building a veterans’ cemetery in Preston, and it’s a great privilege and opportunity to work on that as a member of the Senate,” said Miller.

Committee Chairman Senjem said towns statewide have presented numerous projects to the committee. The cost for these projects is a little over $3.5 billion, said Senjem, and the tour, which was on the southeast Minnesota leg last week, has looked at everything from the roof of a community college to a storm sewer. The committee is expected to put together a bonding proposal up to $800 million, which he hopes will include a veterans home somewhere in the state.

After touring the sites, the bus entourage, which included the senators’ staff, unloaded at the county building to formally meet the members of the Spring Valley and Preston veterans’ home committees, Fillmore County commissioners Duane Bakke, Mitch Lentz and Gary Peterson, Cathy Enerson, of Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) that contracts with both Preston and Spring Valley for economic development directorship, and Fillmore County’s veterans’ services officer Jason Marquardt.

The local group outlined the project proposal for a 72-bed veterans home that would incorporate $10 million from the state Bond Proceeds Fund for construction and for which the state shall provide the necessary operating costs for the veterans home in excess of any revenue and federal funding for the home that may be required to continue the operation of the home and care for Minnesota veterans. 

The presentation highlighted that the commissioner of veterans affairs may apply for federal funding and establish a veterans home in Fillmore County with up to 144 beds for eligible veterans and their spouses and that donations of land and money from private individuals, businesses, local governments, veterans service organizations may be accepted for the purpose of matching funding as federal funding is solicited for the development of the home. 

Enerson informed the senators and their staff that a needs study had been carried out in the fall of 2016 and that maximum occupancy was expected within one year’s time, with a six-month contingency to allow for staffing and training.  The overview provided by CEDA and the other bodies proposing the home stated the need as defined by the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs is up to 100 beds.

The need is particularly acute in southeastern Minnesota as 33 percent of Minnesota veterans live in the 15 counties surrounding Fillmore County. Of those, 33 percent live within a 90-minute drive, and 30 percent within 70 miles.  Significant demand is projected through 2040 for a 100-bed home, and all existing comparable homes have a minimum three-month wait list.  The home enhances care for the high concentration of veterans and spouses within a 90-mile radius without affecting demand for existing state nursing home facilities. The presentation added that there are currently 1,898 veterans waiting for placement — 1,000 of those actively waiting. 

As for the employment possibilities created by the home, Enerson cited that there could be a workforce of 1,000 or more Fillmore County healthcare workers currently commuting outside the county who could find work here. Specifically, there would be “quality, sustainable jobs created, estimated at 172 for the region and 140 at the facility,” she said.  

Marquardt shared that there are waiting lists for the five homes around the state, which are located in Fergus Falls, Hastings, Luverne, Silver Bay and Minneapolis. 

“If you live in the metro, there could be 550 people waiting to get in.  It depends on the home for the average wait time, but also on the severity of need,” he said. “The Fillmore County area could support up to 46,000 veterans in need.” 

When questioned about eligibility, Marquardt replied that while the veterans cemetery is open to veterans in the tri-state area, the homes are only open to Minnesota veterans because they are state-funded for Minnesota veterans.

Fillmore County isn’t the only Minnesota location seeking a state veterans home. Montevideo has been seeking a home for many years and Bemidji is also in the running for a state home. In addition, although the federal government provides a two-to-one funding match for construction, there are limited federal dollars available and other states are also seeking homes.

Enerson cited the results of an economic impact study done by University of Minnesota Extension for Fillmore County that showed that the home would be a $31 million capital project with an estimated $38.3 million in economic activity, $11.1 million in labor income and regional output and 260 jobs during construction.  The ongoing benefits would provide $10.2 million of annual economic activity for operations, $7.3 million of operating costs, $6.8 million estimated to be paid in labor income, and 140 direct employees.  Regionally, it is expected to generate $11.1 million in economic activity, and over 23 years, the facility is forecast to bring a return of $255.3 million on a $10 million investment. 

The question “Why Fillmore County?” was included in the presentation, and it encompassed the answers, such as a 45-minute drive to the VA clinic and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the availability of local medical clinics, volunteer ambulance crews and volunteer firefighters, the proximity to the state veterans cemetery for which land was donated by Fillmore County, full-time service officers available to veterans, transportation to the Veterans Administration hospital in Minneapolis, the variety of year-round activities for residents, families, visitors and the workforce, active Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and numerous letters of support from regional servicemen’s groups, the county, cities and organizations. 

When Senjem asked about deciding on a specific location, Preston or Spring Valley, Marquardt explained that the county would work that out.

Bakke questioned how, in addition to the $10 million for construction costs, three years of operating costs for the home — about $30 million — could be set aside in order to apply for federal funding: “You talked about the operating dollars having to be there, but the budget is set up on a biennium…if this gets into the federal queue, it may not happen for another eight years.  How do we put dollars in that that may be three budgets out?” 

“That’s a hurdle we haven’t crossed yet,” said Ben Johnson, legislative director of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

“There needs to be an answer for the Legislature to be comfortable with appropriating the dollars,” replied Bakke.

As the senators were ready to depart at the end of the 45-minute time allotment for this portion of the bonding tour, Preston Veterans Home Committee Co-chairman Ron Scheevel stood up to ask them to “make a decision sooner than later. I’m making a plea to you to invest in our veterans…for the risks they’re taking, I really feel this is important.” 

The Vietnam veteran said, “I’d hate to have my boys send me up to Minneapolis.  Not saying that they wouldn’t, but the chances that they’d come visit me in Minneapolis are slim.  I’m asking you to protect the folks who protect us.” 

“It’s important to honor the veterans…we look at the numbers and statistics, and they show that there’s a significant need in southeastern Minnesota.  We’ll continue to work in southeastern Minnesota to honor our veterans,” concluded Miller as the room emptied.