Despite a lengthy negotiation, the city of Anoka and Anoka County are close to inking a lease agreement for the vacant cottages on the grounds of the old State Hospital.
The property, part of Anoka County’s Rum River Human Services Campus, gifted to the county by the state, includes three vacant historic cottages and an unused auditorium.
For five years, the city of Anoka has been working to facilitate a plan that would turn these vacant and deteriorating buildings into housing for homeless veterans.
“It’s a big dream and it’s a worthy dream, and certainly there will be people interested in helping,” said Mayor Phil Rice.
“We wanted to get to a point where people could be invited to help. Without buildings, without a project, it is very difficult. So we’re now looking at a viable project,” he said.
Anoka has identified Eagle’s Healing Nest as its first choice to implement a veteran’s housing model in the cottages.
Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Center is operated entirely by volunteers and headed by Melony Butler.
Butler has said she is excited about expanding that model to provide much-needed service in Anoka County.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, has been a champion of the project, acting as a liaison between Eagle’s Healing Nest, the city and the county.
He said his investment is not as a policymaker, but because of a personal desire to help people who need it.
“That’s my drug – helping people,” Abeler said.
It has been reported that Minnesota leads the nation in veteran suicides and housing for homeless veterans is in short supply, even with the opening of a new facility at Fort Snelling this week.
“These are brave men and women who have put themselves out there. They’re a little wounded and they need a chance to heal,” Abeler said.
Monday, the Anoka City Council gave its first round of approval to a lease proposed by its staff for the cottages. But some changes are anticipated as it is fine-tuned with the county.
This comes after much back and forth, including the city deciding a nearly 50-page lease presented by the county was “unworkable,” said Planning Director Carolyn Braun.
The city countered with a 10-page lease which it said was modeled after Anoka County’s agreement with Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, a homeless shelter that operates in the county-owned Cronin Building on the same property.
“As of today, the county has agreed to use the city version of the lease,” Braun said Monday.
Earlier in the day, Abeler met with County Administrator Jerry Soma, County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah and County Commissioner Scott Schulte to try to iron out details.
What emerged was the proposed agreement that will give the city of Anoka control of the rehab of the cottages (with periodic check-ins with the county), 10 years to get at least one of the four buildings operational and a 25-year lease agreement for veterans housing, with five-year renewal terms to follow.
According to Schulte, this concept has the full support of the county.
“The County Board – all seven of us – believe this project is worthy and beneficial,” Schulte said. “Saving those turn-of-the-century buildings is important.”
Schulte recognized there were hurdles for both the city and the county in order to come to an agreement on a lease for the cottages, which are in his district.
“There were rumors out there that the county wanted to tear those buildings down,” Schulte said. “That was only as a last resort.”
Schulte said the county is less concerned about the end user of the property than the success of the project itself. The county had also supported a previous plan proposed by Common Bond Housing, also for veterans housing. But that model was not able to secure the needed funding.
The Eagle’s Healing Nest concept does not rely on taxpayer funding. It is instead based on volunteerism, donations and sweat equity.
Abeler called it the best possible public-private partnership.
“This is not a city-funded project, a county-funded project, a state-funded project or a federally funded project, Abeler said.
“This is a people-funded project. And so the people are going to chip in and find ways to do the remodeling, assist in the programming and get deeply involved.”
To kick off this initiative, a rally will be held from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28, on the grounds of the former State Hospital, 3300 Fourth Ave. in Anoka. A program will start at 6 p.m.
It is being sponsored by a new grassroots group called Friends of Homeless Veterans, which includes Abeler and is chaired by Bart Ward.
Abler admitted when the rally was set, they weren’t confident the city and county could make a deal.
“We weren’t sure if we were planning a celebration or a protest. But we’re definitely celebrating.”