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Plans for new veterans' cemeteries stall

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ST. PAUL -- Efforts to establish veterans' cemeteries in northeastern and southwestern Minnesota are moving ahead slowly, but proponents say they are far from dead.

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The cemeteries must wait in line, like a funeral procession, until land and money open up.

The northeastern plan seemed nearly a done deal: Complete some bureaucratic formalities and a new cemetery would be built on scenic Minnesota parkland. The new cemetery would serve thousands of veterans in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin who live far from existing veterans' cemeteries, so are unlikely to seek a military burial.

Veterans' groups and lawmakers applauded Gov. Tim Pawlenty's cemetery announcement nearly a year ago, but the state later learned it needed nearby private land for the project to go forward.

Now, Veterans Affairs Department officials say they cannot reach agreement to buy land from either of two private landowners adjacent to Jay Cooke State Park.

The state has stopped pursuing the Carlton County park site, indefinitely delaying construction of a new cemetery.

"We're not discouraged," said Dave Swantek, director of the Little Falls state veterans' cemetery, who also is working on the new cemetery project. "We're not deterred. We're just moving forward."

Meanwhile, veterans' supporters and lawmakers are trying to secure state funding for a vets' cemetery in southwestern Minnesota.

Supporters see needs for cemeteries in both regions, but one in northeastern Minnesota still is priority, Swantek said. There are 21,000 veterans in St. Louis, Carlton and Lake counties alone.

Pawlenty still wants a new cemetery in the area and is willing to consider borrowing money for it by selling state bonds.

"We will consider bonding proposals as the process for that bill moves forward," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "Caring for and honoring our veterans and their families is one of the governor's highest priorities."

Minnesota has two veterans' cemeteries -- the Little Falls site, north of St. Cloud, and Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis. But tens of thousands of veterans live farther than 75 miles from those cemeteries, and the distance makes it less likely they will choose those burial grounds. Instead, Swantek said, they probably will opt for a city or church cemetery near home.

"This new cemetery will allow us to honor our heroes and remember their remarkable commitment, courage, and sacrifice with an appropriate final resting place that is close to home for families in northern Minnesota," Pawlenty said in unveiling the new cemetery plan.

The proposal called for 60 acres of land in Jay Cooke Park to be transferred from the state Department of Natural Resources to Veterans Affairs, which would oversee the project.

The state filed a pre-application for the project with the federal government, which offers states money for veterans' cemetery design and construction, but the project did not go much further after an engineering firm determined an existing access road to the parkland was inadequate for a large cemetery entrance.

Sen. Tony Lourey, whose legislative district includes Jay Cooke, supported the cemetery proposal but said he understands the nearby landowners' decision not to sell their property.

"If they don't want to grant access, then it does have to be a different site," said Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

Veterans Affairs is looking for an alternative site of at least 40 acres in southern St. Louis County or northern Carlton County. There have been suggestions since the Jay Cooke plan was dropped, Swantek said, but there is no deadline for the project.

"We would certainly hope that it doesn't get into the years," he said.

As the state's preferred cemetery plan is forced back into the early planning stages, lawmakers are trying to secure money for a veterans' cemetery in southwestern Minnesota, a region home to 18,000 vets.

Senators approved a public works package that includes $3 million for new veterans' cemeteries -- $2 million for a Redwood County project, $1 million for a Duluth-area cemetery.

The House has not proposed funding a new cemetery. Rep. Lyle Koenen, who oversees a House veterans' affairs committee, said it probably is too late to expect money this year. There is no site identified yet for that cemetery.

"Really to push this thing forward, it needs to get the funding," said Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, said he is not yet worried that only the Senate has proposed funding the Redwood County. Military and veterans' issues are a priority this year, so a compromise could include money for a Redwood County cemetery, he said.

"I know for a fact," he said, "that there are veterans in close proximity to Redwood Falls who are pleased that there will be a veterans' cemetery in Redwood Falls."

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