Amendment money is helping some offbeat efforts.
Dr. Deane Manolis was hoping the people doling out the state's Legacy fund money would be interested in an oral history of psychiatry in Minnesota. They gave him $2,914 in taxpayer money for the project.
Lori Bents got money to document women who served as Red Cross volunteers in World War I. Taxpayers gave Kang Vang $7,000 to tell the story of Asian-Americans in north Minneapolis. Jon Collins got money to compile the history of Minnesota journalism in the last half of the 20th century.
With the state's new taxpayer-backed Legacy fund churning out hundreds of millions of dollars for arts and environmental initiatives, hundreds of small projects cataloging the sometimes offbeat nooks of the state's cultural heritage are quietly flourishing.
Not everyone thinks that Minnesota can afford these amenities when state leaders are slashing budgets and borrowing money to pay bills as many people struggle to find work.
"When you're so tight on money, especially on the state level," it is difficult to justify them, said former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who helped lead an unsuccessful campaign in 2008 to defeat the Legacy Amendment.
In good times, Grams said, "some of these projects we probably wouldn't care about."
State officials said they are sensitive to what projects get Legacy money, especially with much of Minnesota facing the lingering effects of a recession and coming off years of back-to-back, multibillion-dollar deficits.
David Grabitske, the Minnesota Historical Society's manager of outreach services, said cultural heritage grant recipients meet "identifiable standards" and must show a "clear need and rationale." While he acknowledged that Legacy money is supporting many projects that otherwise might not be a priority, Grabitske said the public and state officials "did not want to see things that were just mere busy work."
The state's Historical Society now sifts through hundreds of requests for Legacy grants for cultural heritage projects. Before the Legacy constitutional amendment, the society typically awarded $80,000 to $200,000 a year in competitive grants. Now, $5.25 million is available annually.
A recipient who got money to compile the history of comics in Minnesota compared it to the New Deal's Federal Art Project, which gave money to artists and historical researchers during the 1930s.
The cash infusion is part of more than $200 million a year from the voter-approved Legacy constitutional amendment, which increased state sales taxes to fund projects benefiting the outdoors, clean water, parks and trails, art and cultural heritage until 2034.
Money for missile history
A good chunk of the money is going to small-scale projects. Of the 1,230 Legacy projects so far, nearly half -- 610 -- got less than $50,000. One-third received less than $15,000.
So while there are big projects -- such as the $1.1 million being spent to update the inventory of wetlands in Minnesota -- just over $4,000 went to look at the history of maternity care in Duluth prior to 1941, and $7,000 went to study the culture facing women who served in the St. Paul Police Department.
Fred Keller, from the small Hennepin County suburb of St. Bonifacius, helped get a $14,000 grant to tell the story of the Cold War-era Nike missile base once located near the town. The money also went to erect plaques near a leftover missile perched in a city park.
In awarding the money, officials noted that "St. Bonifacius is the only town in Minnesota with a real Nike-Hercules missile in its park." Only 15 to 20 of the missiles still exist from the thousands that once guarded 20 U.S. cities.
Grabitske defended the use of Legacy money for plaques to explain the Nike missile. "Having a missile in a park that doesn't have a story attached to it is not accessible," Grabitske said. "It provides the answer to, 'So what? Why is this thing here?'"
Jerry Stenger got $7,000 to help preserve videotapes and other material that tell the story of Minnesota explorer Will Steger.
"I can see where people can say, 'Well, you know, why is that important?'" he said. "[But] the application process is pretty rigorous. They're not just handing money out to anybody."
No 'money wasted'
Much of the Legacy money has gone to larger projects to address statewide or regional needs, such as monitoring moisture at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, mapping the vulnerability of glacial aquifers and building a stormwater retention basin in suburban Crystal.
Others are smaller in scope. A $7,000 project is studying the history of a Jewish long-term health care system in the Twin Cities. The Richfield Historical Society got $4,620 to catalog 7,500 black-and-white photos from 1955 to 1957 of nearly every home in the Minneapolis suburb.
Jodi Larson, the society's director, said the grant made the project possible. "Someone could come on in and say, 'I really would like to see what my house looked like in 1957.' We can actually find their house," she said.
But she conceded: "It's not high profile. Nobody's going to drive by the building and look at our museum and say, 'They look like they just rehoused their photos.'"
Margaret Miles oversaw a $6,700 Legacy grant to create an oral history of homelessness in Minnesota. The money, she said, enabled her to travel the state and talk to 67 homeless people and add their stories to hundreds of others she'd already collected. She turned the stories into a traveling exhibit that has been displayed in Washington, D.C.
"I'm well aware the Legacy grants are controversial," Miles said. "For that reason, [I] was quite mindful of spending the money as a wise taxpayer that I am. I wouldn't want my money wasted."
Mike Kaszuba 651-222-1673
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