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The time is now for a veterans home and Willmar 'is the place'

WILLMAR -- Local officials made a case to state legislators Friday for helping fund a veterans home in Willmar -- one that could specialize in treating war-related traumatic brain injuries as well as psychiatric and geriatric care for Minnesota's veterans.

"We feel the time is now and this is the place," said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The presentation was made Friday afternoon to members of the House Capital Investment Committee, who spent the day touring the region and hearing about capital needs.

The Minnesota Veterans Home Board has already paid for pre-design work on building a new veterans home potentially located in Willmar.

The project was also supposed to be considered during the last state bonding cycle, in 2006, but was delayed.

The estimated cost of construction: $22.5 million, of which 65 percent would come from federal funds and 35 percent -- $7.9 million -- from the state.

Minnesota won't move up on the federal priority list, however, until the state agrees to dedicate its share of the money, Renquist said.

Officials told House committee members that care for veterans is badly needed in the region.

Willmar's resources and experience in providing mental health care make the city a leading choice for locating and funding a veterans home here, officials said.

Dr. Bill Sheehan, a psychiatrist in private practice in the Willmar area, said it offers a particular opportunity to address traumatic brain injury, which he called "the signature wound" of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With improved body armor, more soldiers are surviving explosions, but are coming home with brain injuries at levels much higher than any previous generation of soldiers, Sheehan told the legislators.

They're at risk for a host of difficulties ranging from chronic unemployment to substance abuse to psychiatric problems.

A veterans home in Willmar that specializes in early diagnosis and rehabilitation for these veterans will help them receive appropriate treatment -- and could provide a laboratory for improving the way traumatic brain injury is managed among returning soldiers, Sheehan said.

"We have the capacity to do research we can try and implement in the field and start serving these veterans here," he said.

Willmar architect Richard Engan showed preliminary drawings of a veterans' facility on the east side of Willmar, potentially located alongside a proposed new Rice Care Center skilled nursing center and senior housing campus.

Engan, who was hired by the Veterans Home Board for pre-design work, described a "neighborhood" concept that would allow veterans to live in a home-like atmosphere surrounded by a residential area, parks and trails -- "the day-to-day things of life," he said. "They do not want to be removed from life."

Co-location with the Rice Care Center -- and with a state-owned 16-bed psychiatric hospital a few blocks away -- also offers opportunities for sharing services such as groundskeeping, housekeeping, laundry and food service, and saving on the operating cost of a veterans home, local officials said.

"We're excited about this partnership," said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar. Juhnke is on the House Capital Investment Committee and also chairs the Veterans Finance Division.

When veterans don't have access to proper care, they can wind up elsewhere in the system, he said. "We want to catch them, treat them and save the money as we move forward," he said.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Capital Investment Finance Committee, said afterwards that it was "a very exciting presentation."

"We want short-term intervention, hopefully in a very effective way to identify those problems and provide the right treatment,'' she said.