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Grant to restore birthplace of musician stirs controversy

Resentment is bubbling over congressional approval of $500,000 to restore the birthplace of Lawrence Welk, the king of champagne music. But the project's leader defended the plan to renovate the sod farmhouse where Welk was born and develop a German-Russian history museum and other tourist attractions.

"People are saying we're taking money away from farmers. It's not so," Rosemary Schaefbauer, president of Welk Heritage Inc., said Thursday. "This money was allocated for rural development. North Dakota is going to benefit a whole lot from it."

The grant is included in a $52.2-billion agricultural appropriations bill that the House passed Monday and sent to President Bush.

It piqued the interest of radio talk-show hosts across the country, who have been calling Schaefbauer. It also raised the ire of Rep. Silvio Conte, R-Mass., who said it's an example of the kind of projects the country cannot afford during a budget crunch.

"What will they do for an encore? Earmark funds to renovate Guy Lombardo's speedboat? Or restore Artie Shaw's wedding tuxedo?" Conte asked.

Welk, 87, does not grant interviews, but one of his daughters, Shirley Fredricks, said by telephone from Los Angeles that the grant caught the family by surprise.

"We were astonished, and I must say embarrassed," she said. "We actually didn't know until last week that the funding had even been asked for."

She said the family would have preferred the money come from private sources, but Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., thought federal money could help.

"As the senator said, it's for the town, it's not for Lawrence Welk," press secretary Jean Broadshaug said today. The money will help with the town's plans to build a small hotel, community center and restaurants.

"Everyone does what they can for their own constituents," she said, replying to Conte's remarks. "And I think in this case anyone who has ever been to Strasburg can recognize it needs some help."

Welk Heritage applied for a federal grant three months ago.

Many in Strasburg, a town of 600 in south-central North Dakota, say the money could have been put to better use, but that the town may as well take it. "If there's money to throw away, we might as well have it," said Fred Martin, a resident of the Strasburg nursing home. "Farmers will get their share."

Welk lived on the farm near Strasburg until he was 21. Then, with a new accordion, he formed a band in Yankton, S.D., and began his career as one of the country's most successful bandleaders.

The total cost of the restoration project is estimated at $750,000, including $500,000 for a trust to maintain the museum after it opens. Work began this summer in anticipation of a June 2 grand opening.

"I can well understand that citizens are very concerned that tax dollars are going into this project," Schaefbauer said. "But it's very common for museums and so forth to get federal grants from time to time."

"It's more than just the birthplace of Lawrence Welk," she said. "It's a perfect example of how their homes were built in that time frame."

"I think the payoff will probably come down the line in another generation, when our children will be able to go there and see how the pioneers lived."