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Facing a tight budget, Pawlenty’s plan for huge park near Lake Vermilion draws criticism and questions

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

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty sought to burnish his green image in July with a surprise announcement to create Minnesota’s first state park in nearly 30 years, his proposal attracted a flurry of favorable media, an endorsement by an influential parks and trails group and support from DFL politicians in the area.

But four months after the Republican governor outlined his vision for Vermilion State Park, the idea is now attracting skepticism, criticism and questions.

Some lawmakers and others are wondering why the governor is pushing for the expensive 2,500-acre park after years of slashing budgets for existing parks and trails.

They point out Minnesota’s parks budget has been hacked 38 percent on Pawlenty’s watch and spending on trails has spiraled to all-time lows. And parks advocates complain that deep staff cuts have meant fewer camping spots and reduced park hours while weeds grow in widening cracks on unkempt trails.

Estimates put the cost of buying land for the park at $45 million — with another $25 million to develop the area so it would rival the best parks in the system. Proponents say the park would lure 300,000 visitors annually and add $8.5 million in new local spending.

Rising land values
Debate over the park may be complicated by the revelation that Mark Holsten, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a leading proponent of the park, bought land in the area at the time he was working behind the scenes on the park plan and just before the proposal was unveiled.

Area real estate agents say a new park on Lake Vermilion would enhance land values across the area. Holsten purchased 2.5 acres on Thirtysix Island in Lake Vermilion May 2 for $223,000, according to St. Louis County records. His land is about 10 miles from the proposed park.

“I’ve been looking at land up there for three or four years,” said Holsten, adding that the purchase was openly discussed in July when the park plan was announced, although apparently there was no media coverage of the land deal at the time.

A skeptic of the park plan, state Rep. Tom Rukavina said Holsten’s land deal may appear awkward but, he said, has “little to do with anything.”

Rather, the Virginia DFLer charged that the governor is pushing the park on behalf of “some very, very rich people who don’t want Lake Vermilion developed — they want it for themselves.”

Holsten defends the proposal as a rare opportunity to add an intact parcel that’s suitable for a spectacular new park.

“This is a unique opportunity to create a next generation state park on one of Minnesota’s most beautiful and undeveloped lakes,” said Pawlenty last July as he unveiled what would be the state’s 73rd state park and personally convened a packed town hall meeting in Soudan.

Wary lawmakers
The new park would be immediately northeast of the 1,200-acre Soudan State Park, home of the popular underground iron mine outside Tower, Minn. It would add five miles of picturesque shoreline and preclude the current land owner, U.S. Steel Corp., from selling off 150 large lots, half on the cliff-strewn rocky shoreline and the rest in the forest.

After a spate of meetings last spring, some at U.S. Steel’s headquarters in Pittsburg, the company agreed to give Pawlenty until next July to pull his park plan together.

But key legislators are wary.

“We’ll have to take a look at what that means,” said state Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, adding that her committee will “consider the cost of this park in relation to other proposals.” Anderson chairs the key Senate finance committee that will hear the governor’s park proposal when the Legislature convenes in February.

“This is all very interesting,” said Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, referring to what she regards as a high price to pay for a new park when underfunding of current parks is an issue. Wagenius chairs the key House finance committee that will also hear the park request.

Anderson and Wagenius are supporters of parks, but they also share resentment by legislators that the governor vetoed a $334 million bonding bill earlier this year, arguing that it was “too large” but refusing to bring legislators back to fashion a compromise so that key jobs-producing projects could move ahead.

The 2008 Legislature will be the traditional even-year bonding session and a much larger bill will be considered. Among those adding to the measure will be Pawlenty as he seeks money for the park.

But there are ample signs that state finances may be sparse, and so competition will be keen for money in the bonding bill. An expensive new park amid austerity may prompt some lawmakers to resist Pawlenty’s proposal.

Perhaps sensing this, in October the DNR attempted an end run by asking the keeper of the lottery-supported Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to underwrite a host of resources proposals, including the proposed park. But the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) unanimously turned back the plan, saying it doubted the commission had authority to use the trust fund as proposed.

Pawlenty fanned local support by promising hundreds of thousands visitors to the park and millions of dollars in new local spending by slicing the land into roads and RV pads along with trails for ATVs, snowmobiles and motorboat landings.

Holsten said it’s “irresponsible” to speculate on park costs, although persons familiar with land values and who’ve talked with DNR appraisers say the cost will be “in the ballpark” of U.S. Steel’s asking bid of $45 million. The appraisal is early this month, although it may not be announced until after Jan. 1 as a sale price is negotiated.

“If they pay more than $10 million, it’s too much,” said Rukavina, who said most of his Iron Range constituents who have called his office oppose the park.

Rukavina said he’s preparing his own multiple-use plan for the area, but he declined to elaborate.

Ron Way, a former reporter for several Midwest newspapers, covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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