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EDC votes to hire lobbyist for veterans home project

WILLMAR -- On a 5-1 vote, the governing board of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission hired a lobbyist Thursday to help secure legislative funding this year for a veterans home in Willmar.

The board's pick: former state senator Dean Elton Johnson of Willmar and his lobbying firm, Bringing People Together.

"If the community is behind this, then we should gather all the strength we have and pursue this," said Willmar Mayor Les Heitke, who is one of three city representatives on the six-member EDC joint powers board.

Heitke, Denis Anderson, Richard Falk, Harlan Madsen and Dean Shuck all voted in favor of a lobbying contract with Johnson. The cost must still be negotiated, but the joint powers board agreed Thursday that it shouldn't exceed $20,000.

The funds will come from the EDC's reserve account.

Ron Christianson, chairman of the joint powers board, cast the sole vote against, saying he was concerned about the cost.

"It's a lot of money being spent," he said.

Other governing board members have the same concern -- and there were indications Thursday that if funding for the veterans home fails to make it through the Legislature this year, Kandiyohi County should perhaps stop pursuing the project.

At the same time, the board sees this as a make-or-break year for the project, which incorporates geriatric, skilled nursing and mental health care for veterans.

It's a combination of services that is badly needed in Minnesota, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission.

"The veterans deserve it," he said.

Local officials have been chasing after funding for five years now. The project made it through a legislative conference committee in 2008 and 2009 but ultimately it was cut from the list both times.

"I honestly believe the window of opportunity to get this done is here," Renquist said Thursday.

"If this is our very best chance, let's do our very best," agreed Falk, a Kandiyohi County Commissioner and member of the EDC joint powers board.

Renquist said he is prepared to devote one day a week to traveling to St. Paul to help push through the funding.

It will be especially critical to ensure legislators know what's being proposed -- a veterans home that goes beyond traditional skilled nursing to include mental health care, Renquist said. "They need to understand that," he said.

Supporters of the project also are marshaling estimates of the annual operating costs in a bid to demonstrate that some of this money is already within the system.

Renquist shared data with the EDC board outlining the economic impact if the veterans facility is built in Willmar. During construction, the local economy could be stimulated by as much as $12 million in jobs, products and services. For every year thereafter, the veterans home could boost the local economy by $11 million a year.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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