Board members, volunteers and interested parties broke ground Thursday, Aug. 11, at the future site of Paws and Claws Animal Shelter near Hackensack.

The building is to be constructed on 22 acres of land just off Highway 371 south of Hackensack. Construction is estimated to be completed by June 2017.

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"We will have our dirt work completed by the end of September," said executive director Jim Clark. "I was told by the project manager recently that he expects to have the footings in by the end of September and the framing will start."

This construction comes as a realization of a project started five years ago to fill the need for animal shelters in Cass County, which currently has no shelters open county-wide. The Babinski Foundation animal shelter in rural Pequot Lakes in Cass County also is under construction.

"It started out as a vision of Jack and Betty Thomas that had to do with what their legacy will be," Clark said. "They set out to build a modern, commercial animal shelter that will be sustainable and operate with a relatively small energy footprint."

The project began with fundraising efforts. A billboard on the shelter site sporting a giant bone filled with kibble became a record of the funds raised to date. Today, that fund has nearly reached the original goal, though the actual cost of the building may be different.

"Until our building is totally designed we can't get an accurate cost, but we are hoping that the building costs will come in at $3 million or less," Clark said. "We have generated about $2.9 million."

Part of that money will go toward designing the building to run at a relatively low cost. The facility being designed is state of the art with wood gasification heat similar to that at Deep Portage Conservation Reserve. The system is more environmentally conscious than burning fossil fuels and benefits local taxpayers, Clark said, since most of the wood will likely be harvested from county forest. Money paid toward that harvest goes back into the local tax revenues for the county, townships and school boards.

The facility will have a 40-kilowatt solar array from the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance solar run on a net metering, allowing the facility to produce energy for itself and sell any remainder back to Minnesota Power.

Clark estimated the solar array would provide 20-25 percent of the facility's power.

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Jack Thomas said current animal shelters such as Paws and Claws have more in common with hospitals than traditional animal shelters.

The facility will have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system to keep air supplies zoned off. Using this system, the human workers in the facility will have an air system separate from the animal areas. Cats will have separate air from dogs. The new animals in need of isolation will have a separate air supply from already established animals. Sick animals will likewise have a separate air supply. Puppies and old dogs will be separated. The goal is to keep possible diseases from spreading through animal populations in the shelter.

The HVAC will also include dehumidifiers to prevent harboring diseases. In-floor heat will keep the facility warm and kennels will be vacuumed clean regularly.

Unlike the Babinski Foundation sanctuary and shelter, Paws and Claws will only take cats and dogs into the shelter part of the business, with the ultimate goal of having them adopted.

"We are going to be a shelter," Clark said. "We are hoping animals coming into our facility will be placed into forever homes. With a lot of horse stuff, if I'm not mistaken, a lot of those facilities are a little more long-term where the animals live out their lives."

There will be a temporary boarding facility in the building where pet owners can drop their dogs when they are out of the area or busy, but it will be separated from the shelter side of the building and equipped with its own grooming department.

It is in the same building, but almost completely separated to keep healthy pets away from potentially ill shelter dogs. That part of the building is expected to help fund operations once the business is up and running.

"Building a shelter like this in a small area, we are going to have to have revenue streams coming in, in addition to grants and donations, to support our facility," Clark said. "In our facility, we will have a boarding side as well. In that facility, we will also have a grooming service. Those will be revenue sources."

Clark said the facility will benefit people as well as animals.

"What is important is the role we will play in helping people, not just animals," Clark said.

Clark said the board is in communication with groups to possibly develop policies to board animals temporarily for injured seniors or families getting out of abusive homes.

"We want to support people in need when they have a hard time supporting their animals," Clark said. "We want to come alongside and support them for a period of time until they can resume care for them."

Once the building is completely established, Clark said they would also like to look into contributing to the service dog industry.

Even though they anticipate moving into construction, Clark made a point to say the facility will still need financial contributions.

"As we build this building, it will absolutely not diminish our need for contributions as we need to have money coming in for operating costs," Clark said. "Our need will shift from building to operations. We will always benefit from contributions."

Donations that made the construction possible came from countless sources, including donation drives and plastic "dog houses" at cooperating businesses. Donations were also collected online, and some locals made regular donations of $20-$500. Many of those same donation methods will still be available once the building is finished.

Donations can be made online at www.pawsandclawsanimalshelter.org/ or mailed to 501 First St. S., Hackensack, MN 56452.

Among those breaking ground were Northway Group owner Gary Dietrich, Nor-Son CEO Scott Kuehl, executive director Jim Clark, founding organizers Betty and Jack Thomas, board members Jean Ballenthin, Theresa Ryan, Jay Cline and Franz Vancura, volunteer Brenda Bray and architect Sam Bontrager.