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State officials hear bonding proposals for vets home and work at college

WILLMAR -- The decisions are still months away, but public officials in the area got a chance Wednesday to pitch their state bonding proposals to a group of legislators.

The projects discussed Wednesday included a major remodeling and improvement project at Ridgewater College in Willmar and a veterans' nursing home proposed for Willmar.

The Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee came through the area Wednesday to tour potential projects. A Senate committee toured the area last month.

There's never a shortage of ideas of how to spend the money in the next bonding bill.

The committees make similar trips around the state between legislative sessions.

Major bonding bills, to help pay for state projects and significant local projects, are usually approved by the Legislature during sessions in even-numbered years.

The Legislature will decide next year how big the bonding bill will be. The bills have varied in size in recent years, with the largest totaling just less than $1 billion. Often the value of proposed projects is four times the amount the state intends to borrow.

On Wednesday, more than a dozen House committee members started the day in St. Cloud and made stops in Rockville and New London before arriving in Willmar in the late morning.

They stopped at the MinnWest Technology Campus, formerly the site of a state treatment center, before going to Ridgewater College.

At the college, the legislators heard from school officials who are seeking $14.3 million in bonding money to finish a remodeling, demolition and construction project. The first phase of the project broke ground last spring, using $3.5 million included in a previous bonding bill.

Ridgewater's project will actually reduce the total square feet in campus buildings, said Ridgewater President Douglas Allen, and the space that remains will be used more efficiently. The work has included removing or remodeling old buildings and making heating and ventilation improvements.

Steve Renquist, director of the Kandiyohi County and Willmar Economic Development Commission, spoke with the group about a proposal for a specialized nursing home for military veterans with mental illness, traumatic brain injury or dementia.

County and city officials have worked on the project for five years, he said, and it has already been approved several times by the Minnesota House. The project has stalled in the Minnesota Senate, however.

Renquist said the home would serve veterans in need of mental health services. The Willmar area has a large number of people trained to work with mentally ill patients, he said. They are former employees of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center and "many are underutilized" in their current employment.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, distributed the latest proposal from the state Department of Veterans Affairs, listing a veterans home in Kandiyohi County as one of its top six priorities for the coming legislative session. The proposal seeks $8.5 million in state funding for a $25 million facility. The 2005 Legislature approved $100,000 for early design work on the facility.

Asked by another legislator if other communities want the home, Juhnke said, "No one else is in competition with Willmar." Other communities are interested in veterans homes, he said, but "this is a mental health facility" that would serve veterans statewide and possibly from nearby states.

After the presentations, committee Chairwoman Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said the legislators had learned a lot on this trip, particularly during their stop at the fish hatchery in New London.

"All of these college stops are very important to us," she said, and the visit to Ridgewater was helpful in seeing their needs.

In the case of the veterans home, veterans want to stay close to home, she said, but Juhnke has made the case that the state needs a facility that offers specialized care.

"The nature of this war is that we have a group of veterans with challenges we didn't have before," she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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