Not dead yet: proposed Vermilion State Park

Authorization for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed Vermilion State Park doesn’t exist in any money bills still standing at the Legislature and the purchase price remains in a curious state of denial. Even though the plan appears to be on life support, its backers say it’s too early to declare it dead.
 
“Negotiations are still under way,” said Bob Meier, assistant commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  But he is the only one talking, at least publicly, as the Legislature slogs toward its May 19 adjournment.
 
It’s deal-making time in St. Paul and, as Meier pointed out, anything can still happen.

The best chance for Pawlenty to win approval for the first state park in years came when the House put $17.5 million into its bonding bill. But that was snipped by House and Senate conferees before the combined bill was slashed by the governor’s subsequent line-item vetoes.   
 
Insiders say there remains a wee chance that another bonding bill could be crafted to reinstate the $70 million to advance the Central Corridor transit project. The light-rail project linking the Twin Cities’ downtowns was also among Pawlenty’s vetoes. 
 
All eyes on trust fund
Money for the park could show up if another bonding bill emerges. But most park watchers have turned their attention to legislation authorizing projects with money from the lottery-supported Environmental Trust Fund. 
 
That’s where things get dicey for the governor. 
 
Authors of bills for those projects are DFLers who don’t much like what Pawlenty did to the bonding bill. Sen. Ellen Anderson, who lives near St. Paul’s Como Park, saw $11 million for the popular Como Zoo stripped in his vetoes. Rep. Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis, an ardent supporter of transit, isn’t pleased with the Central Corridor project veto and other actions by the governor. So, it’s highly unlikely that she would allow money for Pawlenty’s park to come at the expense of other projects in the Trust Fund bill. 
 
Besides, when Pawlenty proposed last fall to pay for the park with Trust Fund monies, the Legislative-Citizens Committee on Minnesota’s Resources — including Pawlenty’s appointees — unanimously nixed the idea. 
 
The park would occupy 2,500 acres adjacent to the existing Soudan Underground Mine State Park on Lake Vermilion’s spectacular southeast shore. The land’s owner, U.S. Steel, has said the parcel is worth $45 million, although the assessed valuation is $13.4 million, Meier said. 
 
U.S. Steel, which wants to develop the land with home sites, has given Pawlenty until Aug. 1 to close a deal. 
 
Ever since Pawlenty announced the park proposal last July, there has been an undercurrent of buzz about his reasons. Last fall, acerbic DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia, Minn., speculated that the governor was merely trying to deliver for “his rich friends” who live on Lake Vermilion and who want to minimize development for selfish reasons. 
 
That buzz has intensified over the past several weeks at the Capitol. Rukavina said his friends who live on the lake insist that Pawlenty visited last summer with noted Republican benefactor David Frauenshuh of Edina. Frauenshuh, who has a home on Echo Point near the proposed park, has given impressive sums to Republican candidates over the years, including hosting an event that raised $1 million for President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. 
 
Frauenshuh could not be reached for comment. 
 
Still, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor has not discussed Vermilion Park with Frauenshuh and that Pawlenty’s only interest is “to create a beautiful state park for the people of Minnesota to enjoy.” 
 
Critics have noted that funding for state parks and trails has slipped to all-time lows under Pawlenty’s watch, leading to park closures and maintenance deficits that will take years to overcome.

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