PRESTON — Construction is expected to begin in a few weeks on a state cemetery in Fillmore County that is expected to become the final resting place for an estimated 35,000 veterans.
All that's left is for the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to give final approval to the $10.1 million project. Once that happens, the county officially will donate the land to the state. The state already has sought construction bids for the project and plans to award the bid as soon as the project gets the final OK, said David Swantek, director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls.
"We're just waiting for the final confirmation, and it should be full speed ahead at that point," he said.
Backers of the project are eager to see the work begin after four years spent trying to get the cemetery built near Preston.
"It's very significant for veterans of all branches, old and young, and for the future. This cemetery is going to serve the needs of veterans for the next 50 years. It also will serve the veterans of northeast Iowa and southeast Wisconsin," Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud said.
A 176-acre site overlooking the Root River will house the new cemetery. In addition to burial sites, it will include a large gate with monuments, a flag plaza, a columbarium to house cremated remains, an administrative building and a maintenance facility. The project initially had been projected to cost $7.9 million but swelled to $10.1 million. The main reason has to do with the site's hilly topography, which includes more than 150 feet of elevation change. Swantek said extensive grading will be done to make the site suitable.
"I don't think that we were irresponsible in any way or that there's any excesses to this project by any means," Swantek said. "It's a challenging site topographically. It's very rolling and it's spread out, which requires quite a bit more roadway than what would typically be seen in a state veterans cemetery like this."
The federal government is covering the entire cost of building the cemetery. The state will be responsible for the annual operating costs and plans to hire six full-time employees.
Minnesota veterans wishing to be buried in a military cemetery have only had two options — Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis and the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls. A 2009 report by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs identified a need for veterans cemeteries in southeastern, southwestern and northern Minnesota for "underserved" veterans. Then-state Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, came up with the idea to try to get the cemetery built in Fillmore County, according to Amunrud.
Closer to home
The Fillmore County site is a former farm acquired by the county in the 1970s. It is on the far side of U.S. 52 from Preston. An estimated 51,000 veterans live within 75 miles of the planned cemetery. The state expects to conduct 400 burials per year during the first 10 years the cemetery is operating.
In order for the project to advance, it had to win the support of state lawmakers. Despite some political battles over whether Fillmore County was the right spot for a veterans cemetery, Fillmore County Board Chairman Randy Dahl said he was optimistic the project would advance because the county was willing to donate the land.
"I think it really got off the ground because of the buy-in from the local community," he said. "There's just not that many things you work on in government that have generated this much positive support from the get go."
Once construction begins, the project is expected to be completed within a year and a half. The state is planning a special ceremony on the site in the next few weeks to recognize the transfer of the property from the county to the state.
Amunrud said the cemetery will be a tremendous asset for the region. His father was buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery and the 100-plus mile trek each way to the cemetery has limited how often he gets to visit his father's grave site. Amunrud, a Vietnam-Era veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force, said he and his wife have already decided they want to be interred in the new veterans cemetery, which is closer to their family. Besides its convenient location, Amunrud said the cemetery site is stunning.
He added, "It's really going to raise the bar for cemeteries in the future as far as location because it's so beautiful."