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St. Louis County balking at costs for proposed state park

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed Vermilion State Park just got a lot more expensive, raising further doubts that the state’s first park in 30 years can win legislative approval.

Click on the map above to view a PDF of the conceptual state park development near Lake Vermilion

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed Vermilion State Park just got a lot more expensive, raising further doubts that the state’s first park in 30 years can win legislative approval. The Republican touted his pet park project in his State of the State message last week. 

“My grandson is 6 years old, and he’ll never see a Vermilion Park like the one the governor promised,” said St. Louis County Board Chairman Mike Forsman of Ely, Minn. Forsman’s skepticism is echoed by fellow board member Keith Nelson of Virginia, Minn., and they matter. 

Without the county board’s backing, state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he’ll withdraw his support for the park located in his district. Without the influential Bakk, the park plan would go nowhere in the Minnesota Senate. 

It comes down to loss of local tax base, Forsman explains.

Some 61 percent of St. Louis County land is public and not taxed, leaving those owning the remaining 39 percent to pay property taxes to support 3,000 miles of roads in the sprawling county and a broad array of state-mandated services. The county has a standing resolution opposing expanded public ownership unless other land of comparable value is converted to private, taxable ownership.  

County worried about loss in revenue

Forsman said that removing 2,500 acres of high-value land along Lake Vermilion for the park would result in the county losing $1 million in property tax revenue, leaving a gaping hole in the county’s budget.   

County officials had a brief meeting in January with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to discuss the tax-loss issue, but Nelson said nothing has come of it.   

But there’s more. 

Nelson and Forsman complain about “extremely dangerous” conditions on Highway 169 from Virginia to Ely, a road that would carry the 300,000 annual visitors that Pawlenty says would be attracted to the “state of the art” park. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar secured $23 million in federal funds to improve road conditions, but Nelson claims Pawlenty has refused to pony up the required 20 percent state match.

At last summer’s public meeting in Soudan, Forsman said Pawlenty personally promised to consider spending the road-safety money — if the park is approved. 

“It’ll take $100 million or more to buy the land and create the park that the governor has promised, and yet he can’t come up with $4.6 million to repair a dangerous road that’s killing people,” Forsman said as he stood in his heated garage where he tinkers with an heirloom 1927 Chevy Roadster. 

“Park managers up here can’t get a nickel to take care of what they have, and we’re going to see closures because this governor has cut park budgets to the bone,” Forsman railed.  “We have a crisis in K-12 education, in higher education, in health care, and we have deteriorating roads and bridges, and this governor wants to spend tens of millions on a new park?  I’m telling you, it ain’t gonna happen.”    

Late last week Pawlenty delivered draft land-purchase authorization bills to Bakk and to Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who also represents the area of the proposed park. The site is next to the existing Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Tower, Minn.

Looming deadline
Dill said he has talked with Bakk about rewriting Pawlenty’s proposal to require comparable value of shore land to be transferred from state to private ownership and to otherwise mitigate any loss of the county’s property tax base. Dill said he and Bakk will soon meet with the power-packed Iron Range delegation to win regional support for their approach.

The current land owner, U.S. Steel Corp., has valued the spectacular acreage at $45 million, more than twice what advocates say is supportable and more than four times what Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, says the state should pay. Once the DNR and company negotiate a price, Pawlenty’s office said the governor’s proposed bonding bill would be amended to include the amount. 

A lot must happen in a short time, however: U.S. Steel has said it wants to develop the land and has given Pawlenty until July 1 to close the park deal.    

“You know,” Dill said, “Governors can get what they want — but they’ve really got to want it.”