Minnesota is looking to build up to three new veterans cemeteries to meet aging demographic.
After traveling the world during his 22-year U.S. Army career, Steve O'Connor knows where he wants to be laid to rest when the time comes -- in a veterans cemetery as near as possible to his home in the rolling limestone nooks and crannies of southeastern Minnesota.
O'Connor, past state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was diagnosed several years ago as having lung cancer from Agent Orange. He was told that he had a 25 percent chance of surviving five years.
"When I think of all the soldiers who are buried on foreign shores, it seems only right that those of us who made it back can find a place where they want to be, near their homes and families," O'Connor said.
For many Minnesota veterans, that prospect of a military burial had been limited to two options -- either the National Veterans Cemetery at Fort Snelling or the State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, in central Minnesota. But now, the state appears on the verge of a veterans cemetery boom, with at least three new ones envisioned -- in the northeast, south-central and southeast parts of the state.
The House could vote as early as Wednesday on an omnibus Agriculture and Veterans bill that directs state officials to pursue the three new sites.
Those lobbying for them say they pay homage to veterans -- and can be good business, as well.
"It's really a significant way to honor the service of our veterans and their families," said Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, who has been advocating at the Legislature for a cemetery at Preston, Minn. "But I could also imagine at some point as these become peppered across the state, people will go on tours to visit the various locations and collateral businesses would spring up."
The State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, opened in 1994, has become a day-trip destination for visitors, bringing jobs and boosting business for places such as the Flower Dell flower shop and the A.T. The Black & White restaurant along Little Falls' 1st Street.
Fillmore County, in southeastern Minnesota, is hoping to make available more than 150 acres of county-owned land to get its own veteran cemetery outside Preston. The land rises up to rolling hills, stunning vistas and drops down to the gurgling sounds of the Root River.
When parts of northern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin are included, more than 39,000 veterans live within 75 miles of the proposed site. With an unemployment rate that has topped 11 percent, Fillmore County officials see the cemetery as a way to honor veterans and boost the local economy. Even the half-dozen or so state jobs that a cemetery would bring would be welcomed in an area that boasts its attractiveness as a tourism spot along the Root, a destination for bicyclists, anglers and lovers of quaint bed-and-breakfast inns.
Lest conspiracy theorists start building websites, veterans officials say the new cemeteries are the result of aging demographics and an infusion of federal money, not plans to bring more bodies home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fort Snelling is performing more than 100 burials a week and is expected to reach capacity in about 50 years. The state cemetery at Little Falls conducts between 300 and 330 burials a year, using about 1 percent of its 30 available acres annually.
For about 10 years, the National Cemetery Administration has provided grants that cover all of the construction costs. The state is responsible for the upfront costs of design, but that money is reimbursed after any construction contracts are awarded.
A 2009 report by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs showed a need for cemeteries to address "underserved" veteran populations in the Duluth area and in both southwest and southeast Minnesota. The report found that more than 80 percent of burials in the Little Falls veteran cemetery come from a 50-mile radius that extends from St. Cloud to the Brainerd Lakes area.
When the only option for a veterans' cemetery is more than 50 miles away, most families choose a more local option, typically a church or city cemetery, according to the report.
The federal money is an incentive, but the state is responsible for obtaining the land and the cost is not reimbursable.
"Farmland doesn't sell for cheap and for someone to be willing to turn over 100 acres of property that's valued at $4,000 or $5,000 an acre becomes a pretty significant donation to the state," said David Swantek, director of the state veteran cemetery program. "It does happen but the stars really have to align."
The state should look for public lands for cemeteries or for a private landowner willing to donate, said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division.
Juhnke suggested using acreage the state already owns at Fort Ridgely State Park, about 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, for a new cemetery.
A cemetery bill making its way through the Senate proposes a Fillmore County location and includes $1.5 million in funding to acquire land.
While they are reluctant to say they would give the land away, the folks in Fillmore County continue to be, in the parlance of the real estate market, willing sellers. For now the land is being used only for turkey, deer and mushroom hunting -- and as a lovers' lane.
"The county is willing to donate a portion of it, how much we're just going to have to wait and see," said County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud. "It would be good for everyone."
Mark Brunswick • 612-67434