Fillmore county veterans cemetery awarded $10 million
PRESTON — Fillmore County's quest to transform a patch of prairie into a state veterans cemetery cleared its last hurdle this week.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the project $10 million, covering the cost of building the Southeastern Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery near Preston. That award means construction crews could begin transforming the 176-acre site before the first snow flies, according to David Swantek, director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls.
"We are moving to execute the construction contract with the low bidder for the project, and once that's in place, we'll be meeting with them to determine a timeline for construction and full speed ahead," Swantek said.
The low-bidder was Olympic Builders General Contractors Inc., of Holmen, Wis., with an estimate of $8.2 million.
Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, one of the cemetery's biggest champions, said he was thrilled to learn about the funding.
"We were all pretty excited," he said. "It was a great feeling of, not relief, but satisfaction that government does work and can work effectively together."
The push to get the cemetery built in Fillmore County dates to at least 2009 when then-Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, came up with the idea, according to Amunrud. County officials embraced the idea and agreed to donate the property to the state for the cemetery. Getting the project done required plenty of lobbying in St. Paul and the backing of the area's legislative delegation — both Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, supported the cemetery project and successfully got $400,000 in funding for the plan this year, allowing the proposal to move ahead. He counts his work on the veterans cemetery as one of the highlights of his 11-term legislative career.
"I don't know that there are very many people that realize what a big deal this is and how important this will be — not only for Preston and southeastern Minnesota. This is a very, very big deal for the entire area," he said.
The veterans cemetery ranks among the biggest development projects in the county's history. It also fills an unmet need in the region. The Fillmore County veterans proposal shot to the top of the federal priority list for funding because it would serve an estimated 51,000 veterans within a 75-mile radius, according to Swantek.
Plans are underway for a ceremony to transfer ownership of the county property to the state. A date has not yet been set. The county acquired the former farm in the 1970s. It boasts a sweeping view of the Root River and is expected to become the final resting place for an estimated 35,000 veterans. 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. Construction is expected to take a year and a half.
Last year, 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who serves on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, held a bipartisan hearing at the site. Walz announced the federal grant late Wednesday in a news release.
"After the tremendous sacrifices made by our nation's veterans, our warriors deserve a final resting place that will both honor their memory and give them peace of mind in knowing they will be close to family and loved ones," Walz said in a statement.
Local veterans wanting to be buried in a state or national cemetery have had limited options. Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis is nearly 120 miles away, and gravesites are filling up. The closest state cemetery is 193 miles away in Spooner, Wis. 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 buried in the new cemetery.
"This way, family members can come and visit. It's a lot more convenient, and it's closer to family, it's closer to home and those things mean a lot — especially to soldiers," he said. "As a county board, we are honored to have found a wonderful use for a property that has just been sitting basically idle."