Sesquicentennial organizers look for state money

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One of the many sesquicentennial events being planned happens in May, when five Minnesota cities get to be the state capital for a day.

And if you find yourself in New Ulm on its capital day of May 15, don't expect to sleep in.

Popcorn wagon
This popcorn wagon, a staple at New Ulm city events over the years, was recently restored and will be dedicated on May 15, the day New Ulm is Capital for a Day.
Photo courtesy Brown County Historical Society

"At 8:00, we'll have a flag-raising at City Hall, and then two minutes of bell-ringing and whistle-blowing by every church bell and fire whistle and what-have-you in the community," said Mayor Joel Albrecht. "We're even talking about getting the railroad to use their switch engines and join in with their whistles."

Throw in a pancake breakfast, the dedication of a newly restored popcorn truck, and the release of a huge catfish -- a "wonker," the mayor says -- and you have a town ready to be a capital.

"Capital for a Day" isn't the only event that will help mark 150 years of statehood.

A musical will be performed during the state fair, and signs have already been bought and placed at dozens of entry points along the border that note the state's birthday.

"This is a moment I think we can sort of connect as Minnesotans."

The state Sesquicentennial Commission in charge of all these events got $750,000 in state money last year, but immediately doled out half that to local towns so they could plan their own celebrations.

While the commission will announce a $226,000 donation from the Bush Foundation later this week, overall private fundraising hasn't lived up to expectations.

That's where the state comes back in.

Last Friday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a bill approving another $175,000 for the commission. And Monday, lawmakers got their first look at a request for yet another $825,000. That would bring the total state contribution this calendar year to $1 million.

The commission's executive director, Jane Leonard, said she understands every dollar counts in such a tight budget year, with Minnesota facing a budget deficit approaching $1 billion.

But Leonard said milestone anniversaries like these are important.

"This is a moment I think we can sort of connect as Minnesotans, and think together about what our priorities are and where we want our future to take us," said Leonard.

Downtown Bemidji
Bemidji is one of five cities that were selected to be Capital for a Day. It will celebrate May 12. The others are: Thief River Falls (May 13); Detroit Lakes (May 14); New Ulm (May 15); and Winona (May 16)
MPR photo/Tom Robertson

Those priorities are being discussed in an ongoing series of meetings across the state, where Minnesotans talk about what they want from their state.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, is chairman of the commission. Betzold said the state does have a role in helping pay for administration.

That's because he said private donors, like corporations and foundations, usually want their dollars to pay for actual events, not office staff.

"In the big scheme of things, the amount of money we're talking about here is fairly minor," Betzold said. "This is a one-time expenditure. Once this year is over we don't have to worry about anything until the state's bicentennial, which is 50 years from now."

The commission also has a place on its Web site where you can contribute.

But if you're low on cash, here's a suggestion: Head out New Ulm next month when they release that wonker of a catfish into the Minnesota River. The fish will have a special tag on it, and the person who reels it in will win a few hundred bucks.

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