Hey, governor: Senator who supports your park plan is waiting and waiting…

Sen. Thomas Bakk
  State Sen. Thomas Bakk

State Sen. Tom Bakk knows parks. The Cook DFLer has 10 of them in his sprawling district in Minnesota’s forested Arrowhead, and last summer when Tim Pawlenty made a big splash with his surprise announcement to add another, Bakk was ready with a press release supporting the Republican governor’s quest for Vermilion State Park.

But now Bakk, the powerful chair of the Senate Tax Committee, wonders why Pawlenty won’t even sit down with him to figure out how to win political backing for the new state park.

“I’ll help ramrod this project, but I need to know what the plan is,” said Bakk, a popular legislator who works effectively with DFLers and Republicans (he once carried the governor’s pet bill to establish the JOBZ economic development plan to aid out-state communities).

It’s not only the governor’s failure to meet with him that has Bakk frustrated over what he sees as lack of an effective strategy to move the plan to add Minnesota’s first state park in 30 years.

After Pawlenty announced the park plan, he personally convened a well-publicized forum in Soudan where he pronounced the new park would be a jewel in the state’s system and would attract each year 300,000 visitors who’d spend $8.5 million in the area. Pawlenty had Commissioner Mark Holsten of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set up a website promoting the park and assign staff to gain favorable media coverage and to orchestrate lobbying trips for legislators to see the 2,500 acres of spectacular shoreland and woods along the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion.

A key first step
But the governor didn’t do what Bakk said was an essential first step: get support of the St. Louis County Board, which is concerned over losing still more tax revenue in a county already 60 percent publicly owned and tax exempt.

“I told [the DNR’s] Holsten that we would have to at least work out a land swap with the county,” Bakk said, adding that he would work to pass legislation to accomplish the swap — if he’d be asked.

“If the St. Louis Board won’t support this park, then I’ll withdraw my support,” Bakk said.

Despite fanfare for the new park and all the activity by the DNR to promote it, Pawlenty did not include any money for it in a bonding proposal he sent to the Legislature last week. Rather, the governor favored the park be paid for through the Lottery-supported Environmental Trust Fund, but that plan has already been unanimously rejected by keeper of the Fund, the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

When he announced the park, and several times since, the governor urged swift legislative action because U.S. Steel set a one-year deadline for getting a deal done. The company has publicly asked $45 million for the land (the price is still being negotiated, said Holsten), and it’s estimated to cost another $25 million to create the “jewel” that Pawlenty promised.

Bakk sees little chance that the Vermilion Park plan will be included in the bonding bill that will be considered by the Legislature when it convenes next month in St. Paul.

As he waits for the governor to accept his invitation to meet, Bakk said that it will “take a lot more than press releases” for Pawlenty to get the park approved.

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