After years of discussion, plans to construct a state veterans cemetery in the Northland are slowly moving forward — with a parcel of state land along U.S. Highway 53 North West of Duluth near Pike Lake the preferred site.
"It's been in the works for a long time, much longer than we would have hoped, but it's definitely not something that's been put on a back burner," said Minnesota State Veterans Cemeteries Director David Swantek.
The only state veterans cemetery currently operating in Minnesota is in Little Falls, a 150-mile drive from Duluth. Another state veterans cemetery is being developed near Preston in southeastern Minnesota. There's also a national veterans cemetery at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities, and a state veterans cemetery near Spooner in Northwestern Wisconsin.
And there are other cemeteries in the Northland that welcome burials of veterans — but the lack of a formal public veterans burial ground near the Twin Ports has been frustrating to some veterans and their families.
Army veteran John Marshall of Duluth is captain of the Duluth Honor Guard, which participates in about 200 veterans' funerals each year. He said he has seen the difficulties the lack of a local veterans cemetery has caused.
"I personally have presented thousands ... of flags to families," Marshall said. "Many of these widows that I hand these flags off to, the hearse takes their husband down to Fort Snelling and that's the last they are able to see and visit their loved one."
State officials are eyeing a 104-acre parcel of land in Grand Lake Township, south of Pike Lake, for a new veterans cemetery, Swantek said. It is owned by the state and is school trust land, managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Money generated from the sale of school trust lands is credited to a school fund, managed by the State Board of Investment.
Highway 53 bisects the property, and Swantek said the cemetery would be located on the larger portion southwest of the highway, with Caribou Lake Road forming the western boundary.
Swantek said the state began looking at the Pike Lake land about five years ago, not long after plans to build a veterans cemetery on a site near Jay Cooke State Park fell through. Swantek said progress on the cemetery has been slower than many would like, mostly because of wetlands on the Pike Lake property.
Before the land could be purchased, Swantek and the state first had to determine whether they could keep from affecting the property's wetlands. Once they established that was i
mpossible, they had to submit potential plans to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, showing how they would avoid as much of the wetlands as they could.
Swantek said he hopes to see a decision from the Corps by the end of August so the state can move forward with acquiring the land.
"The biggest challenge on this particular piece of property has been wetland impact application," Swantek said. "It's a fairly complicated, complex process."
As currently proposed, the cemetery design would affect about 7 acres of wetland . The state would offset the damage by purchasing 7 acres from a wetland bank.
Swantek said the project is slated to cost about $8 million and, if approved by the National Cemetery Administration, would be fully paid for with federal funding. The state has been working with a consulting firm that will help design the cemetery once the land is acquired. The cemetery would accommodate the burial needs of Northland veterans for the next 50 years, he said.
"We're cautiously optimistic," Swantek said. "I'd like to see the cemetery underway with construction in the next 18 months. It takes quite a while to design these projects ... they're significant in scope."
Marshall has spoken with Swantek about the new cemetery site and said he thinks that, despite the land's issues, it is the best option. He is confident the state will work through any difficulties.
Sherry Rodriguez, veterans service officer for St. Louis County, said 18,789 veterans live in the county. She said a new, closer cemetery would help veterans' families.
"The families wouldn't have to travel down to Minneapolis, down to Fort Snelling, which is a long way away," Rodriguez said. "They could go to the cemetery right here locally and pay their respect to their loved ones."
Marshall said he has seen many frustrated veterans hoping for a closer cemetery, but is confident that the new site will become a reality.
"I think the veterans' community is a bit miffed," Marshall said. "This is something that keeps getting pushed out further and further and further. But the people that I've been speaking with ... I think (they'll) come through for us. I think we'll have this cemetery."
September 22, 2016 03:55 PM
An $8.3 million federal grant will be used to establish a new Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Duluth.
U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and Congressman Rick Nolan announced the grant Thursday from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The state submitted a formal application for federal assistance in August.
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The grant will fund the development of about 19 acres to construct buildings, facilities and burial spaces and support infrastructure for the cemetery.
“A State Veterans Cemetery in Duluth will help the heroes no longer with us be buried closer to their loved ones,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery-Preston opened last November in the southeast corner of the state. The Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery-Little Falls has been a final resting place for veterans and their families since 1994.