Bemidji Pioneer Press

By Nicole Ronchetti

BEMIDJI — As the opening day for the new Bemidji Veterans Home draws closer, the facility has been giving tours to groups that have helped make the dream a reality.

On Friday morning, the tour was for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was one of the primary advocates for getting the project federal funding.

Klobuchar visited the state-of-the-art building with members of her staff, and the home’s administrator Kevin Gish showed off its considerable amenities.

“I was just stunned by how beautiful this place is,” Klobuchar said.

The 72-bed facility is outfitted with private rooms and communal spaces, including a library, a barber shop, a therapeutic gym and several nursing stations. It’s designed for eligible veterans and their spouses who need 24/7 skilled nursing care, with the first residents expected in February.

In total, the building cost $52 million, with $30 million of that coming from the federal government with the help of Klobuchar after years of community advocacy.

“It was an incredible investment, but it’s because everyone was a part of it,” she said. “So much of this was because of local support, if we didn’t have that we couldn’t have made the case to Veterans Affairs that this should be funded.”

Local veterans began working towards the home in 2007, with an official case for the project presented in 2013 that outlined the regional need in northwest Minnesota and local support for the construction.

The Minnesota State Legislature approved funding for the Bemidji Veterans Home, along with homes in Montevideo and Preston, Minn., in 2018. The $30 million in federal funding arrived in the spring of 2021.

Groundbreaking on the project quickly followed in August of that year, and since then the community has anxiously awaited its completion. Now that it’s ready to open, the Bemidji Veterans Home hopes to meet the community’s expectations and care for the veterans who have served the country and supported its existence.

“It’s humbling to be able to serve who we’re going to serve,” Gish said. “My vision is (veterans) are going to thrive in this environment because it’s a community. They’re not going to be isolated in their homes.”

Everything about the home has been designed for residents’ comfort and ease, with bright, airy rooms and local art and photography hanging on the walls. The goal is to feel welcoming, and for veterans to be able to stay closer to their families in northern Minnesota.

“You’ve got to respect not only (veterans’) service, but their entire lives,” Klobuchar said. “People should be near where they grew up, their families, their own memories.”

To start, the home will just be admitting 24 residents while it waits for official recognition after a federal survey. Once it passes that survey, it will begin growing its population as it meets staffing goals.

With the workforce shortages across the country, particularly in health care, this has led to some delays for the Bemidji Veterans Home and even at other existing facilities.

“None of the existing homes are full to (the number of beds), they are full to staffing ability,” Gish explained. “Staffing is going to be our dilemma.”

Things remain on track, however, for Feb. 12 to mark the home’s first resident admissions, when it can begin serving the population that has put so much time, care and commitment into serving the country.

“A nation that forgets who served forgets what they stand for,” Klobuchar said. “You’ve got to remember we don’t just value our veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. You’ve got to do it every single day.”