Grand Rapids Speedway to reopen

July 02, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    In its June 23 meeting, the Itasca County Board heard that the Grand Rapids Speedway would be reopening in early July. Land Commissioner Kory Cease said that the Speedway Association’s COVID-19 response plan had been approved and the facility would be operating at a capacity of 675 people. 

    Cease asked anyone planning a gathering at county facilities to contact the land department at 218-327-2855, and the department will help them plan a safe event.

    The board also heard a report from Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator Bill Grantges and approved the program’s 2020-2021 budget. Last year the AIS Program did 26,500 watercraft inspections and logged over 2,400 volunteer hours. Their programs reached over 5,500 students. Of note was the purchase of a new cross-polarized light microscope that allows checking for zebra mussel veligers on site. 

    Grantges addressed the question of trying to prevent the “inevitable” when it comes to zebra mussel infestations. “It’s only inevitable if we say it’s inevitable,” he said, point to the fact that, with the exception of North Star Lake, there have been no new infestations in the last six years that are not downstream of an existing infested lake. 

    “I’m optimistic,” he said. Still, boat users should remain vigilant. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to clean their own watercraft…we have to do it together,” he added.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants of $1,933,179.94.

    • Approved June Health and Human Services warrants of $1,218,581.31 with the note that out of home placements are trending downward.

    • Recognized county employees with 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years of service. Three employees were recognized for 25 years of service: Don Warwas, Brenda Simonson and Maureen Kangas.

    • Approved MOUs regarding medical insurance with nine union local representatives, and updated fringe benefits for eight individuals and elected positions, and the 2019-21 collective bargaining agreement with Local 639-3.

    • Approved cooperative agreements with the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

    • Approved the Master Subscriber Agreement for court data services.

    • Approved a cooperative agreement with two counties on a highway reflective edgeline project.

    • Awarded a timber bridge replacement contract in Wildwood Township to S & R Reinforcing, Inc. for $280,143.36.

    • Heard a regular update on the pandemic from Kelly Chandler, manager of the Public Health Division. She noted that visitor restrictions at hospitals and long term care facilities are lifting, but visitors should call ahead as requirements are different between facilities. 

    • Heard an update from Shelley McCauley of IMCare on the provider quality satisfaction survey showing a satisfaction rating of 98 percent from medical providers in the network.

    • Heard testimony on both sides of a tax forfeit repurchase request and tabled the issue to the July 14 regular meeting for resolution. Land Commissioner Kory Cease was asked to draft findings of fact from the discussion.

    • Approved a resolution to be sent to the Minnesota Department of Corrections authorizing construction of a jail west of the courthouse at 123 NE 4th St., Grand Rapids to meet the DOC timeline.

    The next regular session of the Itasca County Board will be Tuesday, July 14 at 2:30 p.m. in the County Board Room.

N-K School Board mulls extending online learning option

June 25, 2020

    The ISD 319 School Board opened its regular meeting this month with High School Principal Ranae Seykora addressing the lessons learned from distance learning this past spring. 

    Seykora polled teachers in the District and found that if distance learning is necessary again in the future, teachers are most concerned about the ability to plan and deliver consistently to that planning across the district. Other concerns included staff and student health as well as equal access to technology.

    She noted that a planning team that is being developed amongst Nashwauk and Keewatin teachers, with the goal of planning for three possible scenarios for the coming fall: A full return to school by staff and students alike, continuation of distance learning or a hybrid approach that combines distance learning and in-person learning. 

    Seykora said that a distance learning component will be necessary because when parents were polled, 10 percent indicated they would not be sending their students back to school for face to face learning. “We want to keep them. We want to capture them. We want to be ready to say ‘Stay with us. We can provide online.’ Otherwise we might lose that enrollment,” she said.

    Board Director Bill Hendricks asked Seykora; “So if they stuck to what the survey says and they chose to not send their kid back to school and we did not have distance learning available for them, we would lose the money from the state if they chose to open-enroll with someone that does?” 

    “Exactly and there’s a lot of people offering online right now,” Seykora responded.

    Seykora highlighted other findings of the survey. In the event of continued e-learning, parents wanted to see more accountability, more interaction between students and teachers and more attention to mental health considerations. Parents in the district are divided on whether or not students should be required to wear masks when they return to school, according to survey results.

    Outgoing Superintendent Matt Grose said that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is encouraging districts to make contingency plans for the three possible methods of delivering education in the fall. Grose said that summer school was currently being conducted under the hybrid plan. He said this was giving the district a chance test various methodologies so that wrinkles could be ironed out before fall classes begin.

    During the week of July 27, MDE will announce which educational delivery model will be in the best interest of the health and safety of students, school staff, and school communities. Grose said that he was one of several area superintendents that would like to see that decision delegated to local authorities. 

    “What’s happening in Burnsville might not be the same as what’s happening in Belgrade which may not be the same as what’s happening in Warroad,” said Grose.

    Hendricks expressed concern that the district may have to invest in things like face shields and portable hand-washing stations which potentially might never be used. Grose said that he anticipated some clarity on issues like that from the state in the coming days.

    Returning to the three models, Grose said that he thinks the district should be prepared to pivot from one model to another. “We have to be prepared to educate those children no matter where they end up being and we have to do a really good job of it,” he said.

    Grose concluded his remarks by talking about the financial situation of the pandemic for the district. Grose said that Nashwauk-Keewatin would be receiving about $16,000 from the state. He said that the Governor has discretion as to how the money should be spent. Grose said that Governor Walz wants the money to be spent on technology and summer school. The district also is eligible to receive about $117,000 from the federal government. Grose said that the bottom line is that the federal money offers more flexibility and it can be used to pay for things such as teacher’s time for planning, hand-washing stations, supplies, nurses and more. 

    Grose said that one more source of money that the district must keep an eye on is coming from the private sector under the name of Partnership for a Connected Minnesota. Private firms infused money into Partnership for a Connected Minnesota and that money would flow to local foundations. The Blandin Foundation is the organization that will act as a conduit for getting money to local school districts, including Nashwauk-Keewatin, through clusters. 

    District 319 belongs to the IASC (Itasca Area Schools Collaborative) Cluster. Grose said that IASC will ultimately apply for the money and that the Cluster stands to gain up to $250,000 from a successful application. Nashwauk-Keewatin would receive approximately $24,000 if the full $250,000 is awarded to the cluster.

Jail option vote: It’s Orange (well, modified Orange/Blue) at 3-2

June 18, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At its June 9 meeting, the Itasca County Board voted to proceed with building a new jail downtown extending on the south half of the city block to the west and attaching to the courthouse, with some remodeling of the courthouse. 

    Commissioners Ben DeNucci, Terry Snyder and Leo Trunt supported the motion, Commissioners Burl Ives and Davin Tinquist opposed it. The site will include three buildings on the block but neither City Hall nor Fire Hall. The actual scope is yet to be determined.

    Before the final vote, Commissioner Ives opened discussion on constructing a new jail only on a greensite, cost at this point - $37.5 million. His motion was defeated. Also earlier in the meeting, the commissioners had received two public comments, one from the Itasca County District judges urging the board to look at current and future justice needs and not taking a piecemeal approach that would be neither efficient nor effective. They noted that there is a lack of adequate space in the courthouse. In a second public comment, resident Molly Randall asked that the vote be postponed until the public could be present.

    The vote closes a debate that has extended over two years.

    In April 2018, Itasca County received a sunset letter from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, directing it to correct deficiencies that would require a new jail by Sept. 1, 2021 or lose its authorization to operate.

    A jail task force was assembled and met for 11 months, resulting in two options, building a new jail and courthouse complex adjacent to the existing courthouse to the east, or building a new facility including a jail and courts on a green site. Itasca County District Court judges and the chief judge for the Ninth Judicial District added a lengthy letter urging the county to consider the needs of the court system as well. 

    The board decided to take over the function of a jail committee in late 2019, narrowing a number of proposals down to two: an Orange option which took the east half of the block west of the courthouse and remodeled the courthouse, and a Green option, building on property near the airport. Another Blue option used the south half of the city block to the west, but was not chosen at that time.

    To bring the public into the discussion, commissioners set up 20 town halls around the county as well as meetings with special interest groups to explain the two options. They also offered an initial and revised public survey. Together the surveys had 1,552 responses. A new green site location was preferred by 47 percent while 33 percent preferred an addition to the courthouse. The remainder were classified as “do nothing” or “other.” 

    While voting, the commissioners spoke briefly on their major concerns. In general those voting for the Orange plan wanted to keep adjacencies intact without adding another property. Those voting for the Green option believed the green site would be more cost effective and control budget creep over an older building remodel. 

 

Other business:

    “Some things that changed probably should stay in place,” said Eric Villeneuve, director of Health and Human Services. During the COVID stay-at-home orders, clients were allowed to do virtual visits and phone signatures. Over 50 waivers are in place and Villeneuve said he hopes high risk clients can continue to operate by phone. The CARES Act distributed $2.1 billion to the state, he said, but no agreement has yet been reached on how to distribute it, including the portion directed to local governments. The peacetime emergency declaration expires on June 12 and a legislative special session is expected. 

     In a COVID-19 update, Kelly Chandler, director of the Public Health Division, said that the Emergency Operations Center is planning for next steps, including “What a mass vaccination clinic could and should look like.” The National Guard is assisting in testing residents and staff at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities by request and just completed first round testing at Bigfork Valley Villa and Communities. There will be two more rounds, spaced seven days apart. In response to a question, there is one county location offering antibody testing, but no positive results yet. Commissioner Trunt asked Chandler to find out when the public can be invited back to board meetings.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants of $1,167,655.20.

    • Accepted a CARES Act grant agreement of $69,000 to reimburse certain airport expenses relating to COVID-19. Grant runs for four years.

    • Amended the Fairgrounds raceway lease agreement to reflect new operator Grand Rapids Speedway, Inc.

    • Approved final payment to William J. Schwartz and Sons for the CR340 bridge replacement. 

    • Approved annual state grant toward boat and water safety from the state of $37,105.

    • Approved policy on use of outside counsel where specialized expertise is needed. All use of outside counsel will require County Attorney and County Board approval with a few exceptions.

    • Approved a letter of support for the Johnson Lake Association no wake/slow zone request for the north bay of the lake. The request will be made to the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and will require a public hearing and a county ordinance so it can be enforced. 

    • Heard that with state reopening guidance there could be limited use of the Fairgrounds raceway (25 percent capacity with a maximum of 250 people). Land Commissioner Kory Cease is prioritizing what work is necessary at the Fairgrounds for the remainder of the year.

    • Approved moving forward with the 2020 Firewise Grant application with one coordinator, contingent on award of the grant. In discussion, current mitigation efforts are directed toward access to properties for fire equipment.

    • Approved moving forward on filling two existing, budgeted positions in the Sheriff’s Department.

County Board reviews jail option costs, learns of state legislature special session requests

June 11, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

New editor's note: In a 3 to 2 vote, the Itasca County Board selected a downtown option for the location of the new jail at its Tuesday meeting. Commissioners Ben DeNucci, Terry Snyder and Leo Trunt supported a modified downtown option connected to the courthouse, not including the Fire Hall.  The modified “Orange/Blue” option would extend west from the courthouse along Highway 169N. Earlier a motion to build just a jail on a green site was defeated. The vote followed a lengthy process of an eleven month jail task force discussions, 36 town hall meetings and a county-wide survey. 

 

    In a sometimes testy discussion during its June 2 work session, county commissioners tried to nail down final numbers and questions to be answered before the decision on the jail option is made at its June 9 regular session. 

    Commissioner Burl Ives listed construction numbers that had been received over the last year for the two jail options and asked whether they were complete and still accurate. Of particular concern were court remodeling and IT costs, and whether remodeling costs included accessibility upgrades. Commissioner Terry Snyder said that the board had not agreed to do any remodeling yet; its charge was to build a jail and the additional features would be à la carte. 

    Ives suggested that the scope for the court needs may even have changed as the court had developed new ways of doing its business with the lockdown.

    Ives spoke about the Fire Hall acquisition required for the orange (downtown) location. The city would be $5 million short in the cost of a new fire hall after being paid for the old building, and that would be added to property taxes of those served by the department. 

    He also pointed out that all of the labor estimates were based on prevailing wage instead of project labor agreement numbers, leading to a contentious discussion. There are only three companies in Minnesota that specialize in building jails, said Ives, although there are a number that might bid on a remodel.

    Commissioner Davin Tinquist pointed out that the board was looking at two different projects on two different locations. Once the project was selected, there was still going to be a discussion to define the scope.

    In the end, “we have to make a decision on what’s best for our taxpayers,” said Ives.

    Commissioner Terry Snyder said that there was interest from local legislators to support a request for an additional 12 month extension on top of the 20 month extension granted by the Department of Corrections to a sunset date for the jail construction. He also hoped for movement on the local sales tax request during the special session starting June 12. In all the 36 meetings and hundreds of conversations with constituents, Snyder pointed out, there were different opinions on what the jail project would look like, but overwhelming support for a local sales tax to pay for it. 

    Administrator Brett Skyles was asked to research what different types financing required a public referendum or a public hearing in the absence of a local sales tax option. 

    The board heard from Land Commissioner Kory Cease that campgrounds are now open, but the county is still looking for a campground host for the Fairgrounds. There are plans to move forward with youth sports and videoconference judging for 4H projects. 

    Kelly Chandler, manager of the Public Health Division updated the board on the pandemic. There are over 60 cases in the county as of June 2, ages 6 to 93. The highest number of cases are in ages 20-29 and 80-89. About 35-40 are now out of isolation. Testing has been extended to those who have participated in recent protests or participated in the clean-up. 

    In other business, the board:

    • Forwarded to the June 9 regular board meeting consent agenda: final payment to William J. Schwartz and Sons for the CR340 bridge replacement, annual state grant toward boat and water safety from the state of $37,105, CARES Act grant agreement of $69,000 to reimburse certain airport expenses relating to COVID-19 and a policy on use of outside counsel where specialized expertise is needed.

    • Congratulated Emergency Management Coordinator Marlyn Halvorson on his retirement on June 3.

    • Discussed moving the budget process earlier than the usual August start date.

    • Heard that in a compromise with residents and the county highway department, dust control has been applied to Highway 45 gravel on portions not near lakes. Highway 45 will have bituminous surfacing next year.

Central Range schools to move forward with collaboration

June 04, 2020

By Beth Bily

 

    Central Iron Range school districts, including Hibbing, Nashwauk-Keewatin and Chisholm along with Floodwood, have announced plans to move forward with next phase exploration of collaborative opportunities.

    In a Tuesday afternoon press conference, the school districts’ superintendents as well as Range Association of Municipalities and Schools Executive Director Steve Giorgi, said they will be jointly sending out a request for proposals for a consultant to engage the respective school boards and communities in shared services discussions. Officials say the shared resources talks are aimed at enhancing student opportunities. 

    “We’re stronger as a Central Range group than as individual districts,” said Hibbing Superintendent Rich Aldrich. 

    A recent survey among community members indicated strong support within the four districts, with an average of 80 percent favoring collaboration at some level. Officials were quick to point out, however, that the current talks are aimed at collaboration, not consolidation. 

    The school boards have indicated they are “on board” if their community is on board, said Janey Blanchard, Chisholm superintendent. “We’re not talking about consolidation, but collaboration.”

    What “collaboration” among the district looks like will likely take shape during a first phase of exploration, which is set to be completed this fall. Officials outlined possibilities such as classes (either virtual or in person) from one district being made available to students in other districts. Other possible areas of shared services identified in the community surveys were: busing, staff, facilities, sports, community education and administration.

    At Nashwauk-Keewatin, collaboration talks have been a cornerstone of district planning for more than 13 years. Craig Menozzi, representing Nashwauk-Keewatin, noted that a 2,000 student-strong organization was certainly capable of offering more to students than a single 500 student district. 

    Officials also noted that Hibbing Community College and post-secondary options will be part of any collaborative model. At the press conference, it also was stated that Greenway School District had been invited to participate in collaboration talks, but declined.

    Meanwhile, with RAMS acting in the lead, the districts will jointly issue a request for proposal for a project facilitator. Officials expect that firm/person to be selected by the third week in June. The anticipated cost of the facilitator is estimated at $30,000, with half to come from the four districts and the other half from a matching funds IRRRB grant.

County to take weekly look at reopening county facilities, parks and fairgrounds

May 21, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The county board has decided to take a stepped approach on county properties opening to public use under the governor’s executive orders. County Land Commissioner Kory Cease had sought county commissioner input at the May 12 county board meeting.

    Discussion centered around the fairgrounds and county campgrounds; all county public accesses are open. Gunn Park is currently open. Loss of revenues from fairground events that are used to maintain the facilities was discussed as well as the loss of tourism. Commissioner Burl Ives said that he had been active in state-level discussions about the effect of decreased tourism on the local hospitality economy. Commissioner Leo Trunt asked whether any federal grants were available to help with cleaning costs or lost revenues. 

    The decision was made to cancel fairground events through May, including racing, with weekly reviews of state executive orders. A letter will be sent to the Agricultural Association on county procedure. The annual Car Show and Swap Meet sponsored by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is taking reservations, but will make a decision on the event at the end of May.

    Manager of the Public Health Division Kelly Chandler and Marlyn Halvorson, county Emergency Management coordinator gave a weekly COVID-19 briefing. There are over 40 lab test confirmed cases with two deaths. Curbside testing has expanded eligibility to all COVID-19 symptomatic cases, as well as those scheduled for surgery or OBGYN patients. Last week, the Public Health Division learned that people were testing positive without symptoms, so it recommends masking while in public.

    Health and Human Services Fiscal Manager Crissy Crebs is heading up the public infrastructure reimbursement process for the pandemic.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants of $750,344.03.

    • Approved a five year agreement with Honeywell Building Solutions for software upgrades for the Enterprise Building Integrator system at an initial year price of $26,320.

    • Authorized Itasca County to sponsor existing snowmobile, ski and ATV trails for 2020-2021. As sponsor, the county can request maintenance cost-sharing between the Department of Natural Resources and clubs.

    • Authorized a change in the June 12 sealed bid timber auction to require bids by percent bid up rather than bid up value.

    • Authorized filling a vacant deputy treasurer position postponed due to the hiring freeze.

    • Heard from county treasurer Jeff Walker that mail-in tax payments appeared to be successful. As of May 12, over $40 million had been collected in property taxes, comparing favorably with $33.6 million at the same time last year.

    The next regular Itasca County Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 26 at 2:30 p.m.

Construction projects scheduled for Itasca, Vermilion community colleges this summer

May 07, 2020

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    Construction of the first-ever student center at Itasca Community College – the only one of its kind at a Minnesota community college – is exactly what students wanted.

    Groundbreaking on a $4.9 million McMahon Student Center is planned for mid-June, said Bart Johnson, Itasca Community College (ICC) provost.

    “This will transform the student experience,” said Johnson. “At the same time, it’s a good chunk of money and a good shot in the arm for economic activity in the region when things are being delayed.”

    It’s the first time the 98-year old college in Grand Rapids will have a centralized gathering space for students.

    Construction of the 10,000 square-foot center includes renovation of about 5,000 square-feet of existing space in the college library and media center. Another 5,000 square-feet of a connecting hallway will be demolished and rebuilt with new construction.

    Funding for the project is entirely from donations to the Itasca Community College Foundation.

    “The foundation just completed fundraising in February and has issued us a check,” said Johnson. “The cash is in hand.”

    Nearly 300 businesses, organizations, community members, alumni, faculty and staff, contributed to the project, said Susan Lynch, ICC Foundation/Alumni director.

    “It’s been honestly just phenomenal,” said Lynch. “It’s been overwhelming to me how many people care about education and young people.” 

    ICC students several years ago identified the need for a student center as a top priority. A steering committee was formed followed by silent and public fundraising campaigns.

    “It’s been about three years in the works,” said Johnson. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done a capital campaign at this level. For a rural community college, it’s almost an unbelievable amount of dollars.”

    Local and regional contractors on April 7 participated in pre-bid meetings at the college. With successful bidding, construction begins this summer. The center is expected to be complete in the fall of 2021.

    The project will create a stronger sense of connection among students, allow for additional programming such as fishing and camping to originate from the center, and help better connect students with the community.

    “Most of our students don’t have that kind of gathering space. That’s the most exciting part about it for me,” said Johnson. “In a time of cell phones and social media, students have that interest to gather and come together. It’s also a spot where students can connect with community members and community organizations.”

    Dr. Jack McMahon – a Grand Rapids native, former ICC student, and longtime Twin Cities orthopedic surgeon – along with his wife Mary Margaret McMahon, a Nashwauk native, kicked off fundraising with a $500,000 donation.

    Cargill Foundation contributed $500,000. Blandin Foundation and Itasca Community College Foundation also supported the project.

    “It’s extraordinary for a small college and a rural community to successfully support a project of this size exclusively through fundraising and private donors,” said Michael Raich, Northeast Higher Education District interim president. “ICC and the community of Grand Rapids should be very proud of what they have accomplished. Several generations of ICC students will reap the benefits of this visionary endeavor. It’s a real game changer for the ICC campus.” 

    ICC, said Lynch, will be the only community college in the state to have such a student center.

    “The students asked us for this,” said Lynch. “They’re craving a space where they can interact.” 

    The center will be a major asset in recruiting, said Johnson.

    “It’s important to the college because we serve both local students and students outside the one-hour driving range,” said Johnson. “We have to be an institution that local kids want to go to and that kids from outside the area want to go to. When compared to a four-year institution, it’s very important in being able to attract students.” 

    Construction jobs are also a meaningful result of the project, said Johnson.

    “It’s important to the economy of our region at this time,” he said. “It’s not only great timing for the campus, but a great time for our community and for the region as far as contractors.” 

    At Vermilion Community College in Ely, a leaky roof over the classroom building is causing concern about mold and the potential for damaging three laboratories and a lecture hall that have already been remodeled. A $2.6 million construction project would replace the roof and renovate six general classrooms beneath it. However, the project is dependent on the results of a 2020 Minnesota legislative bonding bill.

    “I’m optimistic as long as the bonding bill happens,” said Shawn Bina, Vermilion Community College provost. “We’re eighth on the MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) list, but the whole calculus changed due to COVID-19 and the state budget.”

    Gov. Tim Walz included the project in his bonding proposal. Replacing the roof is a $1 million project. Renovating the 1971-era classrooms, including updating with modern technology capability, is $1.6 million.

    “This roof has been in need of repairs for 10 years now,” said Bina. “We’ve been patching it every year. But the insulation ranges from damp to saturated in many parts and we don’t want to get mold problems.” 

    With funding, roof construction would be completed by fall, said Bina. Classroom renovations would be completed during the summer of 2021.

     The project is a perfect example of why the state’s bonding program is important for Greater Minnesota, said Raich.

    “This design will transform a large and important part of the VCC campus, which will be very attractive to prospective and current students,” said Raich. “I can’t thank our local legislators enough for always championing regional bonding projects such as this one.” 

    Itasca and Vermilion community colleges are part of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED). NHED also includes Hibbing Community College, Mesabi Range College and Rainy River Community College.

COVID-19 creates financial strain for hospitals

April 30, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    “Hospitals are here 365 days, 24/7; our lights never shut off,” said Kevin Nokels, CEO of St. Luke’s in Duluth. “At a time like this we are privileged to take on this role.” 

    But trying to forecast timelines and resources needed to do this is like standing on the brink of a valley. “We can’t see across the valley – how deep or wide it is,” he said, and it is important that “we are still strong when we get to the other side of the valley and still strong to serve our communities.”

    Staying strong is a serious issue. Since March 16, St. Luke’s has averaged a $4 million loss per week. Hospitals have had to outlay funds to purchase supplies, convert facilities and maintain a skilled workforce. At the same time, a bigger problem financially is the loss of revenue, said Todd Christensen, director of finance at Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital in Grand Rapids. In order to protect health care workers and patients, and to conserve supplies for COVID-19 patients, elective procedures and patient visits for departments from surgery to physical therapy have been postponed. 

    “We’ve told our main source of revenue to stay at home,” said Jean MacDonell, president and CEO of GICH, “which was the right thing to do.” But as a result, GICH is losing 40 percent of its total operating revenue on a weekly basis. 

    In a letter to its congressional delegation, the Minnesota Hospital Association estimated that statewide, hospitals were losing $31 million in revenue each day, from a 55 percent reduction in revenues to as much as 70 percent for smaller hospitals. In fact, all of its member hospitals are in “a pretty dire financial situation,” according to an MHA spokesperson.

    There are state and federal grants that are beginning to address some of the shortfalls. An initial short term emergency fund of $50 million was distributed by Minnesota in grants to health care organizations from hospitals to nursing homes in early April. An additional $150 million became available in mid-April. In general, the grants apply to expenditures for supplies. 

    Hospitals received money from the CARES Act which also provided stimulus checks to individuals. GICH said that its check will cover one month of lost revenues. Medicare providers have several sources of funds, from advance payment loans from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to increased reimbursements and relaxed regulations. A bill in Congress co-sponsored by Rep. Pete Stauber (Immediate Relief for Rural Facilities and Providers Act of 2020) will target rural and critical access hospitals – hospitals already under financial stress before the pandemic - and other providers for grants and loans.

    Gearing up to have adequate supplies and facilities when the numbers needed are uncertain has proven to be a challenge. Traditional supply chain ordering just isn’t possible, or deliveries are pushed into the summer. Fortunately, hospitals in the region have been sharing and moving around resources for over 20 years in the Northeast Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, one of eight emergency preparedness regions in Minnesota. 

    But if there aren’t enough supplies in the region, and they aren’t available to order from manufacturers, where can they be found? “In a time when access to these resources is very limited, our community is innovating, transitioning their operations and supporting the needs of those on the front line,” said Adam Shadiow, NHPC regional coordinator. 

    With traditional suppliers out of the picture, his sources have been surprising. Cirrus, an aircraft manufacturer, and Frost River Trading, which does industrial sewing, have partnered and retooled to produce over 30,000 disposable face shields. The companies are also working on powered air purifying respirators (PAPR hoods). Duluth Pack brought workers back to sew hospital gowns with assistance from Story Kromer, a cap maker from Ironwood, Mich. Wintergreen Northernwear of Ely is making masks. A Proctor high school industrial arts teacher is making ventilator splitters (so one ventilator can serve 2 to 4 patients) on a 3D printer at home, and using the project to teach his students online.

    “I’m not aware of an effort like this since WWII,” said Shadiow. “It’s remarkable, to say the least.” Shadiow is open to taking calls from local companies who have innovative solutions at 218-726-0070.

    Purchasing additional supplies and equipment is still a cost: for St. Luke’s that number is about $2.5 million plus planning time and training, with labor adding an estimated $3-4 million. A smaller hospital like GICH still estimates expenditures of $50-100,000 just on additional supplies such as PPE.

    In addition to consumables, hospitals have made changes in facilities as well to make them more relevant to a contagious respiratory illness like COVID-19. St. Luke’s has converted regular hospital rooms to intensive care-ready rooms, going from 25 to 81 ICU level beds. Those modification costs also include additional information technology, wiring, monitors and more. GICH has gone from 3 to 19 ICU level beds. Critical access hospital Bigfork Valley has repurposed its day surgery rooms to create isolation rooms. A small hospital like Bigfork Valley would send patients that need a higher level of care to larger hospitals, possibly accepting less severely affected patients itself. 

    With fewer patients, staffing has been decreased with a variety of furloughs, vacation or leave time, reduction in hours or cross-training as well as layoffs. “We’re confident we can bring everybody back, said MacDonell, “but we don’t know the time frame.”

    That’s a problem. How wide is the valley? When will these resources be needed in northeastern Minnesota? Estimates on the timing of a surge in patients range from mid-June to mid-July, according to the model used.

    Meanwhile, hospitals are continuing to gather supplies, furloughed health care workers are waiting, and rooms sit empty. Fortunately, even as the hospitals are committed to their communities, the reverse has proven true. There has been an outpouring of support, said Nokels, and contributions and donations are still welcome and needed. Donations are generally handled through the hospital or community foundations, with drop off locations for hand-sewn masks, gloves and other supplies. Donating blood is also a way to help in the health care crisis. Local blood donation drive sites can be found on the Memorial Blood Centers website, mbc.org.

    “We’re in a bit of a holding pattern,” said Shadiow. “It’s important for us to maintain the course.”

Fifteen percent of NE MN workers file for unemployment

April 16, 2020

By Lee Bloomquist 

 

    In the span of a month, more than 20,000 people - about 15 percent of all northeast Minnesota workers - filed unemployment applications with the state.

    From March 15 to April 9, 23,843 persons in the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) seven-county Northeast Planning Region filed for unemployment insurance, according to DEED.

    That’s about 15.3 percent of the 156,069 total people employed in the Northeast Planning Region. 

    “Fifteen percent of people applying is a large number,” said Carson Gorecki, DEED Northeast Regional analyst. “One that in the scheme of history in what’s been kept track of, is the highest in that length of time.”

    St. Louis County, the largest county in the region, topped the seven counties with 15,178 applications. Itasca County was second with 3,043 followed by Carlton County with 2,347.

    DEED’s Northeast Planning Region also includes Aitkin County (949 applications); Lake County (843); Cook County (742); and Koochiching County (741). 

    The statistics are a graphic reminder of the toll the nationwide economic downturn is taking on businesses and workers.

    “The thing is, it’s everywhere,” Gorecki said of unemployment filings. “There might be some gradiation in different areas, but it seems like its happening everywhere.”

    Since March 15, 407,362 unemployment applications have been filed in Minnesota, according to DEED.

    Hennepin County leads the state with 98,928 applications from March 15 to April 9.

    In northeast Minnesota, it’s the service industry that’s been especially hard hit.

    Food and beverage serving, cooks and food preparation workers and retail sales, are the highest impacted occupations in northeastern Minnesota. Health care isn’t far behind. 

    In Cook County, where leisure and hospitality business is a major part of the economy, unemployment filings in those sectors has been high, according to Gorecki.

    DEED statistics underscore the impact across the region. 

    Of the March 15 to April 9 total northeast Minnesota applications, 2,692 were filed by food and beverage serving workers, 1,337 by cooks and food preparation workers, and 1,108 from retail sales workers.

    Health care support occupations, health technologists and technicians, management occupations, vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics and installers, top executives, and education training and library occupations, are among other highly-impacted occupations.

    Within the Northeast Region, persons with some college education or a high school education, have been filing for unemployment more than those with more advanced degrees.

    Of those with some college education, 6,689 persons filed for unemployment. Of those with high school educations, 6,096 filed.

    Four-year college degree graduates filed 2,621 filed applications Those with a two-year degree filed 2,289 applications. Those with advanced education filed 670.

    During the March 15 to April 9 time frame, 10,629 women and 8,858 men filed for unemployment in northeast Minnesota. Non-hispanic white workers account for 17,064 of the filings; American Indian or Pacific Islander 560; and Black 325.

    Ages 25-34 within the northeast region filed the most applications with 4,915. Ages 35-44 were next with 3,989 applications. 

    As the economic downturn lingers, it’s uncertain whether unemployment filings will decrease, stabilize or increase.

“All we can really say is that there’s uncertainty,” said Gorecki. “It’s really tough to project anything.”

    The Minnesota Unemployment Insurance Program is a temporary partial wage replacement program for Minnesota workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own.

Solving distance learning issues at Greenway and Bigfork

April 09, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    “We’re walking into a different world as far as distance education in a very, very short time,” said Greenway ISD 316 Superintendent David Pace. 

    With just eight days to implement it at the end of March, district teachers needed to not only plan distance learning lessons, but also how to deliver those lessons to families with widely varied resources; from high speed internet to no internet at all.

    And, to complicate matters, the district was committed to successfully maintaining the Career Pathways courses shared between Grand Rapids, Nashwauk-Keewatin and Greenway. Those courses, in fields such as manufacturing and health care included some travel as well as telepresence courses.

    “We’re working through it,” said Pace.

    The important goal was that all students would be able to continue classes; whether through a paper packet with assignments that are followed up with phone calls or internet connection with online coursework. 

    Students at Greenway do have the ability to access the internet with school-issued Chromebooks. Still, there were families which did not have WiFi at home. The District has been working with FirstNet (a public safety network affiliated with ATT) to purchase over 120 Galaxy phones to provide data-only hotspots for these students. 

    “This is going to be an added expense,” explained Pace. “But again, we are doing our best to provide equitable opportunities to our students. We have and will continue to provide paper assignments options … because we know some areas may have no cellular service at all.”

    Greenway, like other districts, is also continuing other programs of a normal school day. The district is providing 175-250 Grab–and–Go breakfasts and lunches daily, either by pick-up or delivery. As other Itasca area schools, childcare for emergency workers is also provided where needed through a link on isd316.org.

    Pace explained that the situation still was changing week by week, with schools still unsure which if any of the spring activities will be offered.

Bigfork School

    Bigfork School also is providing distance learning and has distributed cellular hotspots to three families. Students in grades 7 through 12 are issued iPads for schoolwork at home and under current stay-at-home circumstances, grades K-6 may also check one out. Hard copy materials are available for any student if the technology options are not viable, said Principal Scott Patrow.

    Last week was its first full week, and Principal Scott Patrow was enthusiastic about the result.

    “We are just so impressed with our families and our parents in our school community,” he said. We’ve asked parents and families to step up and take a more active role.”

    Through ISD 318 programs, the school is offering pickup of breakfasts and lunches for students plus two delivery routes, as well as child care for health care workers. There is a form at isd318.org, click on COVID-19 Response Plan and then Food Services. 

    “We couldn’t be in a better community to work with our families,” said Patrow.

Appeals Court asks MPCA to elaborate on PolyMet’s air pollution permit

March 26, 2020

BusinessNorth Report

 

    A state Court of Appeals has ordered the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to supplement the PolyMet air pollution permit with additional information.

    The decision comes as the result of an appeal of the permit by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The plaintiffs alleged the MPCA failed to adequately consider whether PolyMet intends to operate within the limits of the permit for which it applied, or if, instead, it was seeking a “sham” permit.

    Judges said the MPCA’s findings are insufficient to facilitate judicial review, but they added that the agency does need to offer further information about its findings. 

    “We are disappointed in the court’s decision and are evaluating all legal options. We believe the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in its permit appropriately accounted for the potential effects of the NorthMet Project. We stand ready to provide the additional information the agency might need to update its decision on the air permit,” PolyMet said in a Monday written response. “We demonstrated through the extensive environmental review and permitting process that we can meet or exceed Minnesota’s strict standards for nonferrous mines. This mine will provide much needed jobs to a region of the state known for its expertise in safe mining. We are continuing to move forward.”

    The appeals court document said PolyMet’s permit application indicated 36,800 tons of ore would be processed daily. But a report the Canadian firm filed with Canadian regulators said the output might reach 59,000 or 118,000 tons each day.

    According to the court decision, “MCEA argued that the Canadian technical report evidenced PolyMet’s intent to build a larger project than that for which it was seeking permits, and that the (Canadian) report makes plain that the PolyMet project is financially feasible only if the current proposal is the first phase of an expanded and/or accelerated project.”

    “The Court of Appeals decision today makes it even more clear: the process that granted permits for the PolyMet mine proposal is broken,” stated Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “It’s clear that the permits that were issued to PolyMet did not protect human health and the environment, and it’s time for our agencies to acknowledge and address that.”

NHED merger to create seemless student experience

March 19, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Five community colleges make up the Northeast Higher Education District: Itasca (Grand Rapids), Hibbing, Mesabi Range (Virginia and Eveleth), Vermilion (Ely) and Rainy River (International Falls). At the end of January, the board of trustees of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities authorized the five schools to come together to become a single college with six campuses.

    It’s a decision that has been two years in the making and will take two years more before it is accomplished.

    The five separate colleges have a challenging position within MnSCU. They represent five of the seven smallest colleges within the system. They all recruit in the same area and market unique campuses. They face the annual uncertainties of enrollment for two year colleges that has declined an overall 25 percent over the eight school years starting in fall 2010.

    It’s a situation ICC Provost Bart Johnson calls “coopertition” – competition between cooperating groups – explaining that at times all five campuses are sending representatives to high school recruiting events.

    From the student viewpoint, it is also difficult. A student living in Hibbing and attending Hibbing Community College, for instance, might take a specialized course at Itasca Community College and an online offering from Rainy River Community College, only to receive three separate bills with the courses appearing on three separate transcripts. Registration and financial aid are handled individually by each college.

    Two years ago the district began bringing stakeholders together to create a regional academic plan to assure sustainability for its colleges. That sustainability is important because of the integration of the community colleges and their local business communities. Half to two-thirds of Northeast Higher Education District (NHED) students end up working in the region, said Johnson, learning skill sets targeted to northeast Minnesota industries from mining to natural resources. 

    And businesses depend on relevant talent from college programs. Two year colleges have a role in the long term health of their communities and business. “Having a strong community college system matters in the long haul,” Johnson said.

    The result of the internal discussions was to come together to form one accredited college. In its endorsement, the MnSCU Board of Trustees quoted NHED Interim President Michael Raich, saying; “We will create seamless learning experiences for students across the region; expand academic programming regionally; strengthen regional employer, university and K-12 partnerships, and improve operational efficiencies.” 

    It will also vault the new college into the top third of the current 37 community, technical colleges and state universities of MnSCU, giving it a stronger voice in the system which serves about 350,000 students across the state.

    Raich is optimistic about the process, both for faculty, staff and students. “We’ll be stronger together,” he said. “There’s just a lot of ways we can leverage our strengths that each of us bring to a large college.” 

    For one thing, faculty will be able to concentrate on their field of interest, he said, instead of wearing the many hats that operating in a small college demands. With more students, academic programming will be able to expand, including four year partnerships like the successful Iron Range Engineering curriculum developed through Mesabi Range, ICC and Mankato State. 

    The objective, said Johnson, is to maintain the unique cultures and niche specialties of each campus. For instance, programs like education that are identified with a college campus will continue, but with ways for students to better access those programs across campuses that are separated widely geographically. 

    There are also advantages for non-academic operations. Through the NHED, the colleges have shared functions like human resources and business services. But there are many more functions that could be consolidated, such as the specialists needed to maintain compliance and reporting for higher education. 

    The target date for opening as one college is fall 2022. That leaves less than two years for extensive planning and operational changes, including taking separate associate degrees and all the current technical programs and making them into a single package of offerings, merging five separate databases into one, and going through the process of accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission. 

    Then there is selecting a name for the new college. The name has to meet the MnSCU board guidelines and should reflect both the region and individual communities. 

    To be ready will require diligent effort, said Johnson. To keep the process on schedule, the district is hiring a facilitator. That consultant will not be making decisions, rather making sure the right communications are ongoing to keep to the needed timeline.

    Another goal is to bring as many stakeholders into the planning as possible. There will be periodic meetings of an advisory council including faculty, staff, student and community leader representatives from all five colleges. Recently ICC hosted a community leader breakfast to get input. The public can engage through reaching out to the campus provost or someone they know on campus, said Johnson.

    It’s a bright future, believes Raich, a future that includes vibrant higher education for the people of the region…not only for the short term, but also the long term.

Bigfork Valley Hospital board committee looks at strategic planning tool

March 05, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Bigfork Hospital board strategic planning committee last week took a close look at the financial modeling tool developed by accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen that was delivered in early December.

    The hospital hoped that the “what if” analysis would help them plan to stay independent by gauging the effects of different possible future scenarios on hospital financial performance.

    Four scenarios were developed from a baseline using assumptions on rate of increase in expenses and inflation, and each was discussed at the meeting. Only two scenarios represented a significant positive effect on the bottom line, and a suggestion to explore options for those will be brought to the full board.

 

Retail pharmacy

    A savings of about a half million dollars could be realized if the hospital did not operate a retail pharmacy, according to the model. That number includes savings in the hospital’s Medicare cost report which determines reimbursement for hospital services.

    Retail pharmacies are endangered, especially in rural areas, according to a report on Minnesota Public Radio. For instance, Minnesota’s HealthPartners announced that it would close all 30 retail pharmacy outlets along with its mail order pharmacy this year. Nationally, 58 percent of pharmacies may close in the next two years, believes the National Community Pharmacists Association.

    In Bigfork, there are other considerations. An onsite clinic operated by Scenic Rivers Health Services has a need for a nearby pharmacy to start patients on medications and has a close relationship because of the 340B drug pricing program. The next nearest pharmacy is almost 40 miles away. Although the scenario assumed the pharmacy would be sold, the committee wanted to explore the options of outside leasing or management. 

 

Nursing Home

    The hospital also could save money if it did not operate a nursing home. Savings would be about $870,000, according to the model. 

    Options would be explored to have a legal separation between the operation of the hospital and the attached nursing home, a model that has been used elsewhere. One issue is that the footprint of the nursing home is large. Regulations limit the amount of physical space in a hospital facility that can be leased, CEO Aaron Saude explained. 

    Having a nursing home is part of the hospital mission to provide a continuum of services as people age, said Saude. “We wouldn’t want to hand over an important community resource like that to just anyone.” 

    The committee suggested that hospital administration be directed to explore options for providing nursing home services.

 

Other scenarios

    Other scenarios tested in the model included provider development (adding provider services), changing the electronic medical record software and changing the governance model to a 501c3. The latter would create a separate nonprofit operating company to run the hospital while the district held ownership of the hospital facility itself. Those scenarios did not provide a financial advantage under the assumptions used. However, Saude cautioned that the 501c3 option might still be on the table in some cases.

    Bigfork Valley operates as one of the few hospital districts remaining in the state. As a hospital district it can derive income from a levy. The levy has been increased in recent years, standing at $700,000 for 2020. Board Chair George Rounds said that although people value the hospital, they didn’t want the hospital to keep raising taxes. 

    Committee Chair Diane Bakke pointed out that with losses of $775,000 in 2019 and over $1 million the year before, the hospital needed to make changes to stay viable. “We need our hospital here,” she said.

Product diversity key to mill’s future

February 27, 2020

   Recent decades have been challenging for paper manufacturers, something Sappi North America’s new mill director in Cloquet stresses during conversation.

By Ron Brochu

 

    Recent decades have been challenging for paper manufacturers, something Sappi North America’s new mill director in Cloquet stresses during conversation.

    “We actually are a diversified forest products company,” said Tom Radovich, who is very serious in using those terms to describe the plant. “Our mission is to get involved in markets that are growing in the forest products industry, recognizing that we have some markets that are declining.” 

    His observations are supported by considerable experience. Radovich has been with the Cloquet Mill for 25 years. He began in the Technical Department during 1994, when Potlatch owned the business. After Sappi’s acquisition in 2002, he was named paper operations superintendent, then promoted to operations lead in 2005. His work has included the upgrade of the paper machine 12 coater, leading the pulp mill conversion project for the new dry fiber building and upgrading the former paper machine 4. After his 2017 promotion to paper mill manager, his leadership was instrumental in achieving the mill’s record efficiency performance, Sappi said. 

    Named managing director on Dec. 1, Radovich believes strongly in Sappi’s emphasis on research and development to create new forest products – rather than relying on just paper. 

    Eighteen years ago, the facility manufactured kraft pulp, the main component of its paper products. Now it makes three products, explained Radovich, a Hibbing native who grew up around heavy manufacturing but graduated in the mid-1980s when the mining market was in a deep slump. After purchasing the mill from Potlatch, Sappi soon looked for ways to diversify its output.

    It still manufactures graphic paper, 340,000 tons annually, which is used for high-end advertising in catalogs and brochures.

    “That’s the market that has been declining,” Radovich said. “People are shopping online. They don’t get the big J.C. Penney catalog anymore. We promote paper a little differently now. Some people still like the feel of paper, and the touch. So we still have a pretty healthy market share.”

    Knowing, however, that paper demand is on decline, Sappi converted the mill to manufacture dissolving wood pulp (DWP) in 2013. The new product is a filler used in the food and pharmaceutical industries. It’s also a key ingredient in Rayon, which is used in clothing and other textiles. Each year, the Cloquet plant manufactures 370,000 tons of DWP.

    Three years ago, LusterCote joined the Cloquet product line. 

    “It’s applied to laminate and is used for point of purchase displays. That’s about 10 percent of what we make today,” he said. It is also used to create premium packaging. 

    Sappi reduced mill staffing slightly when it purchased the Cloquet facility, but in the 18 years that followed, employment has consistently remained at 700. Meanwhile, output has approximately doubled. Today, Radovich said, his job is to improve efficiency which helping to explore new products.

    Among his first tasks as mill director was to lobby Gov. Tim Walz about the need to keep funding Minnesota’s bio-incentive program. Walz toured the plant in January and learned about Sappi’s process to use and re-use lignin (an organic material that binds wood fibers) as boiler fuel. The program encourages manufacturers to recycle bio products.

    “He was very impressed with what he saw,” Radovich said about the governor. “He said he’d make funding a priority for us.”

    Meanwhile, Radovich is managing procedures that Sappi has shown will ensure success in the wood products industry.

    “The products that you make have to be consistently high quality, and you constantly have to improve your efficiency,” he said. “At the same time, you have to balance that with exploring new opportunities. If you take a look at what we made in terms of volumes when Sappi acquired the mill versus today, it’s dramatically different in terms of output and how we operate. You’ve got to make that evolution every 10 years or so. The vision of the company is ‘Where to next.’”

Judges weigh in on jail options

February 13, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At its Feb. 6 courthouse meeting, the Itasca County Board of Commissioners paused to assess where the jail outreach effort stood and what changes needed to be made to the survey to engage county residents. 

    A new survey will contain some changes, including a new question on whether approve of selling property (buildings and/or land) to reduce the cost of the jail, cost estimates for the two building options and an “other” category added to questions where comments can be made. The new survey should allow just one completion per computer user.

    The digital jail survey was posted on the county website and gathered 337 responses in just one week, according to staff. Those responses will be retained and looked at separately; there is no need to retake it. Paper surveys are available at outreach meetings, or the survey can be accessed on public computers. 

    The survey is just one part of the decision toolbox, noted Commissioner Davin Tinquist.

    Turnout has been good at the initial meetings, said commissioners Terry Snyder and Burl Ives. Seventeen additional town hall meetings are scheduled around the county between Feb. 10 and April 1, as well as one at the courthouse on Feb. 20, 5-7 p.m. 

    Itasca County District judges Hon. Korey Wahwassuck and Hon. Sarah McBroom addressed the board regarding security and space changes in the judicial area that they felt were essential in either option chosen. 

    In the orange (downtown) option, the third courtroom and support spaces must be remodeled to meet ADA requirements, Wahwassuck said. Jury accommodations, lack of technology, file storage and physical plant issues need to be included in the plan. Also, because of the distance between new and old courtroom space, bailiff staffing needs to be duplicated. 

    Security encompasses a number of things, said McBroom, from the front hallway to the back area and the whole feel of the system. Space configuration can affect public safety. She also asked what was going to happen during the remodel period to keep the courts running.

    During public comments, resident Mike Hughes offered another option: build on the east parking lot, with the ground floor as parking and the Sheriff’s Office and jail on the second and third floor, respectively. Anthony Kotula asked for clarification on jail numbers: Jail Administrator Lucas Thompson pointed out that the population included both inmates in the annex jail plus those housed out with a 2018 average population of 106 and peak of 143.

    John Casper said that his Freedom of Information requests on past security breaches and daily court usage had been denied. LaNea Johnson pointed out that there was no “jail only” option. In response to a question from Molly Randall, commissioners confirmed that the letter requesting sales tax relief for building materials had been submitted to the state legislature on schedule. 

    Mike Bellamy pointed out that commissioners had more information than citizens and would have to make the final decision. “You’re stuck with it,” he said.

Greenway School Board revises budget due to higher revenues

February 06, 2020

By Kathy Lynn, KOZY Radio

 

    The Greenway School Board began the school year anticipating spending $300,000 more than budgeted. A Safe Schools grant of $36,500, an increase in federal special education funds, a food service grant and an increase in student numbers have essentially wiped out that deficit. Randi Jurgansen, business manager for the school district briefed the board on the revenue changes at last week’s meeting. The board approved the revised 2019-2020 budget.

    Construction at Vandyke Elementary and the Scofield Building will not only leave the buildings empty this summer, but will also dictate the end of the school year for Vandyke students and the fall open house. The district has bonded for $12 million to renovate and upgrade the two buildings. The school board on Wednesday night heard an update from Superintendent David Pace on this summer’s construction. According to Pace, Vandyke students may have to be released up to three days early so teachers have an opportunity to pack up everything in their classrooms. He said movers will take desks and boxes to storage for the summer. No bids have been posted for the construction yet. 

    The PBIS Team presented its statistics to the board. PBIS is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program. The district has been a PBIS school since 2016. Dawn Jenkins, Vandyke social worker, said here the focus is respect, responsibility, and readiness. “Some people misunderstand and believe PBIS means we only reward positive behavior and we kind of ignore the negatives, but we do have a very clear behavior flow chart. If there is misbehavior, there are consequences and kids know what they will be and what is expected of them.” 

    The board approved another half-time music instructor for the district. After approval, board Chair Michael Williams said that it was exciting to see district taking the next step in the music program. The full-time position next year will spend time with both elementary and the middle school students.

    In other business, the board: 

    • Approved payment of December claims in the amount of $1,328,080.41. 

    • Hired Sydney Anderson, .83 FTE Special Education Paraprofessional, Vandyke Elementary, effective Jan. 13.

    • Hired Tiffany Maki, .83 FTE Special Education Paraprofessional, Vandyke, effective Jan. 15.

    • Hired Rhea Mikulich, Girls Softball B-Team Coach, 2019-20 season. 

    • Hired Katie Sertich, Girls Softball Head Coach, 2019-20 season. 

    • Hired Kelly Kukkonen, Girls Softball Middle School Coach, 2019-20 season. 

    • Acknowledged Mike Vekich, Softball Booster coach 2019-20 

    • Hired Delaney Finke, .83 FTE Special Education Paraprofessional, Vandyke Elementary, effective Jan. 21.

    • Hired of Sadie Barrett, .68 FTE, Special Education Paraprofessional, Marble Elementary, effective Feb. 3.

    • Hired of Eric Staricka, Robotics Advisor, 2019- 20 season. 

    • Hired Kelcie Ingle, Middle School Basketball Coach, 2019-20 season.

Walz Administration launches ‘clean car’ initiative

January 30, 2020

By Kitty Mayo

 

    Is it too cold and snowy here for electric vehicles to take serious hold? Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz doesn’t think so, saying that the market has failed to provide more options to Minnesota customers, including winter-robust models.

    Hinging on motivating automakers to bring a wider variety of electric vehicle models into the Minnesota market, Walz has launched the Clean Car Minnesota initiative.

    In September 2019, Walz directed the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to formulate in-state clean car standards to be patterned after those long in place in California and adopted by 13 other states. Walz’s directive impacts car manufacturers, independent of legislation that has failed to take hold going back to 2007. It is intended to position the state to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gases and air pollution that has held at steady rates since 2009.

    Currently, only about half of the electric vehicle (EV) models manufactured are for sale in Minnesota, despite arguments that EVs cost a third less to fuel and maintain than gas-fueled vehicles.

     The initiative also will set a lower standard for air pollution limits on car manufacturers.

    “This is one of a few regulatory options available to states to reduce emissions from vehicles, and transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota,” said Frank Kolasch, MPCA’s air quality control manager.

    The rulemaking process set out by state statute requires the MPCA to write a need and reasonableness document to justify adopting the rule, which the department is now in the midst of completing.

    Kolasch says the point of compliance will be on auto manufacturers, and the MPCA is pushing to have all of their documentation in place by the end of 2020 because a mandatory two-year waiting period will ensue.

    “We are on an aggressive path to stay on target to get that two-year waiting period started,” said Kolasch.

    By initiating the Clean Cars Minnesota standards, Minnesota will be following a standard stricter than federally required.

    In addition to the low-emission standard, the MPCA will require large and medium car manufacturers to respond to a quota system of delivering low- and no-emission cars for sale in Minnesota in the form of electric and hybrid vehicles.

    “The core of the quota-credit system is to increase the number of no- and low-emission vehicles being sold in the state, with the end goal of providing more consumer choice. Consumers will be able to experience these vehicles on lots,” Kolasch said.

    Currently, a very limited number and range of electric vehicle models are for sale, compared to other states, a playing field that the initiative intends to level.

    “We want to be clear that car buyers have all the same choices for what vehicle to buy, and we think by creating a greater choice, consumers will consider electric vehicles more often,” Kolasch said.

    A simultaneously emerging challenge is the Trump administration’s act to revoke California’s authority to set their own vehicle emission standards. Kolasch says the MPCA remains undeterred in its efforts.

    “We are standing with other states to oppose the federal action, and are participating in court litigation against it,” said Kolasch.

    Addressing the issue in the evolving rule language, the initiative would not become effective until the waiver is reinstated through the court.

    Jim Goodman, development manager for ZEF Energy Inc., a company dedicated to EV charging installations and sales of smart EV chargers, says that the idea that EVs can’t compete in colder climes is fading fast.

    “As people realize how awesome it is to own an EV, and never have to get into a cold car again, or stand at a gas station, they are going to take off,” Goodman said.

    What’s holding Minnesotans up on adopting EVs at higher rates? Lack of all-wheel-drive and high clearance EV options at local dealers, according to Goodman. But several manufacturers are already making plug-in hybrid SUVs and all-wheel-drives, and two hybrid EV trucks soon will  be on the market.

    “What’s happening in EVs means that in every category they will beat gas vehicles in probably  five years, and they are going to completely take over,” Goodman stated.

    Already a partner in the installation of smart chargers along Minnesota’s North Shore corridor last year, from Two Harbors to Grand Portage, Goodman says that ZEF has contracts for 45 more public EV charger installations throughout greater Minnesota in the coming year.

    About half of those are contracts with the state and funded by the Volkswagen emissions-cheating settlement, and the balance will be financed by a utility company in southern Minnesota.

    “When chargers are out and available to the public, then they will be comfortable buying an electric vehicle. Utilities in the business of selling electricity will have a whole lot of load growth much like a distributive gas station,” Goodman said.

    In a phone interview with Minnesota Power representatives Amy Rutledge and Paul Helstrom, the utility  said they are responding to the palpable excitement they are getting from customers about EVs.

    “The electrification of transportation is dynamic and it really fits in well with our EnergyForward strategy to help customers with their energy choices and sources,” Helstrom said.

    According to Rutledge, MP’s electricity supply was 95 percent coal in 1995. The EnergyForward plan is to be at 50 percent renewable energy by 2021, and currently they are at 30 percent renewables.

    With the advancement of car technology and price points coming down for EVs, MP is positioning to respond to customer demand for cleaner energy solutions.

    “It’s natural for us to look at transportation. It’s really part and parcel to meeting our customer’s expectations as they want more information about EVs and are very engaged in reducing carbon emissions and adding renewables,” Rutledge stated.

    Recent efforts by MP have included what Helstrom calls their “crown jewel,” the solar array powering EV chargers near Endion Station in Duluth. However, he acknowledges that more public chargers are needed to ease “range anxiety” before more consumers will get on board.

    To that end, MP has 21 new sites lined-up for charger installations, partnering with a variety of businesses and entities throughout Northeastern Minnesota.

Child protective placements down; Mesabi Trail opened to snowmobiles between Nashwauk, Keewatin

January 23, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At last week’s County Board meeting, Family and Children’s Services Division Manager Becky Lauer updated the board for 2019 child and adult protection results. Fewer cases than in the last four years were opened for children (497), but more cases for adults (71). Child protection cases included 1,030 children, and 12 percent were placed out of the home. Of those, over half were due to parental drug use which is about average, according to Lauer. Other reasons included neglect, family conflict, physical abuse or domestic violence and abandonment. About half of the families were living in Grand Rapids, Cohasset and Warba; about a third in eastern Itasca County cities and the remainder in Deer River, Talmoon, Northome and Bigfork.

    Commissioner Terry Snyder inquired about the county’s readiness for the March Presidential Primary as some staff who presided over elections have retired. Chief Deputy Auditor/Treasurer Deb Davis reviewed the preparations for the board.

    Board Chair Ben DeNucci referred to a memo sent to staff about county meetings and respectful, orderly conduct that provides for a free flow of discussion. He said the object would be to hold everyone to the same standards so meetings are productive for the people of Itasca County.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $2,296,740.11, which included bond payments of over $1 million and Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust insurance premium of approximately $500,000.

    • Approved Health and Human Services warrants of $2,355,030.02. In response to questions from Commissioners Burl Ives and Leo Trunt, Fiscal Manager Christine Krebs explained the high expenses for out of home foster care during some months as being due to higher costs for certain placements. Some placements, such as probation, are ordered by the court so the county does not have flexibility where clients are placed. Also the lower expenses for December was due to invoices from some providers not being processed.

    • Recognized new employees Robbie Hansen, Rachel Kerr and Jackie Flatley (IMCare).

    • Confirmed decisions from the Jan. 7 organizational/work session regarding mail election judges, re-establishing polling place for unorganized townships, PLAs not required on 2020 Transportation Department projects and 2020-2021 Snowmobile Enforcement Grant.

    • Authorized signatures for the 2019 Emergency Management Performance Grant in a matching amount of $29,340.

    • Reallocated the position of Social Worker to Social Worker/Mental Health Coordinator.

    • Amended the 2006 U.S. Steel surface lease to allow snowmobile use on the Mesabi Bike Trail between Nashwauk and Keewatin.

    • Called for an agenda item (Data Requests) which was not represented.

Jail Committee sets public meetings, hears funding options

January 09, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Commissioners at the third meeting of the Itasca County Jail Committee heard about possible ways to fund the jail and bond payments, and how to share information and receive comments from the public. 

    During the meeting, various milestone dates were identified, including the following:

    ● End of January: Board consensus on project alternatives 

    ● Jan. 16: concepts and estimated costing on three alternatives to be provided by consultants to jail committee

    ● Jan. 31: File request for a ballot referendum on sales tax with legislature

    ● Feb. 6, 20: Public informational sessions

    ● Feb. 11: File request for exemption from sales tax on building materials with legislature

    Some commissioners have toured the Pennington and Chisago jails. DeNucci invited commissioners to set up more jail tours.

    Public comments and informational sessions:

    After discussion, two public informational sessions were approved on Thursday, Feb. 6 and Thursday, Feb. 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. The regular jail committee meetings would start at 7 p.m. on those days.

    Methods of collecting public comments were discussed, including using an online survey tool and website comment button.

    Ways to publicize local town halls and informational meetings were discussed, including print (Scenic Range NewsForum, Manney’s Shopper, Herald Review, WATTS News, Hibbing Daily Tribune), radio (KAXE, KMFY, KOZY), and social media. Staff will obtain costs to be approved at the Jan. 14 board meeting.

Funding options:

    County Treasurer Jeff Walker provided information on funding options. Any of the options would be within the county debt limit.

    For funding a Justice Center, general obligation Capital Improvement Bonds would be needed. This would also require amending the county capital improvement plan and holding a public hearing. Generally, according to Walker, these bonds carry the most attractive interest rates and would cover county buildings like the courthouse as well as the jail. This option is subject to a reverse referendum citizen petition which would defer consideration for a year. 

    For funding only a jail and sheriff’s office, the board may use general obligation Jail Bonds or a Law Enforcement Lease revenue bond. In the latter, the building would be owned by the county Housing and Redevelopment Authority and leased by the county. Another form of lease arrangement has a trustee constructing the facility through selling Certificates of Participation and leasing it back to the county.

    It is possible that a project could be separated and funded in more than one way.

    Two avenues are open for paying off the bonds: a levy or a sales tax. Itasca County realized taxable sales in 2017 of about $384 million, which would provide about $2 million a year at a 0.5 percent sales tax rate, enough to pay back a $40-45 million project over 30 years. The request can be made for up to 1 percent, and it was pointed out that until project costs were determined, it would be better to ask for the higher rate and then lower it if possible. 

    County Lobbyist Loren Solberg described the method for requesting a referendum on a sales tax, just changed in the last session. A request by resolution to the state legislature, through the chairs and minority leads of the tax committees of both houses must be made by Jan. 31. The request must include a description of the regional significance of the project(s) it supports. If approved, the question will go to the voters in the November 2020 election.

    Solberg pointed out that approval was not a given. For instance, a tax bill is not required from each session and there was one in the 2019 session.

    After a public comment, the commissioners approved seeking legislation to exempt the project from sales tax on building material. According to Solberg, this could be presented any time after the Feb. 11 legislative session start or added as an amendment to a bill.

 Public input

    The following are highlights of comments:

    • LaNea Johnson: Community input is important. Could documents relating to the jail be made public vs. having to request them? Would like to see a planning study or needs assessment. 

    • John Casper: Will the commissioners commit to a referendum on any financing option presented? The county’s social media platform needs to be upgraded. Doubts that the Department of Corrections date is set in stone. Commissioner Terry Snyder said that he had discussed the possibility with legislators of approaching the DOC commissioner. 

    • Mike Bellomy: The public doesn’t have access to the information the commissioners have; commissioners were elected to make these decisions. 

    • Dan Marshall: Requested more details and sources in the Jail Task Force report. Where is the balance point between overtime in the Sheriff’s Office and hiring more staff? Who will administer and edit submitted comments? Sheriff Vic Williams pointed out that staffing gender and requirements are largely specified by the state.

    The next Jail Committee meeting will be on Thursday, Jan. 16, at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.

Prairie River Minerals announces completion of pilot plant testing

December 26, 2019

    Prairie River Minerals has announced completion of pilot testing of its proposed mining technology, which would be utilized to extract hematite iron units from existing stockpiles.

    The company, led by former state Rep. Tom Anzelc, Ed Shaughnessy, Johann Grobler, Jim Swearingen and Scott Conley recently secured some of the assets of the former Magnetation, which operated scram mining facilities from 2008 to 2016 before becoming insolvent.

    At bankruptcy auction last summer, PRM was the approved bidder on Plant 1 near Keewatin and the Jesse Load Out Facility in Coleraine with a bid of $1.95 million. The company, established just this year, plans to re-purpose and reuse the former Magnetation properties to harvest the previously mined hematite. PRM plans to use a process known as Dense Media Separation to produce products for the steel, cement and aggregate industries. 

    Pilot plant testing was a joint effort among the University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute Coleraine facility with support from the Blandin Foundation and Itasca Economic Development Corp. That testing provided extensive analysis of the “iron ore quality and ore processing technology that will be utilized.”

    Company executives also noted that the methods used to extract iron ore units from legacy stockpiles is “respectful to the environment and has no water discharge.”

    The company has yet to announce start-up timelines.

Board updated on ISD 318 superintendent search

November 21, 2019

    At the Nov. 12 meeting of the ISD 318 school board, Patty Phillips and Bob Oslund from search firm, School Exec Connect, were on hand to deliver a status report on the search for a new superintendent to replace Joni Olson, who resigned this past summer.

    Phillips started the presentation by outlining the steps her organization was taking to create a profile model for the next superintendent. 

    Thirteen focus groups consisting of about 90 individuals had been created and that representatives of her firm met with all thirteen focus groups on Oct. 29 and 30. Some of the focus groups included district administration, building administration, Grand Rapids teachers, Bigfork teachers, support staff, and Indian Education.

    Each of the six school board members also were interviewed by School Exec Connect. The interviews were designed to bring out issues that were similar among board members. Phillips said that areas where there was board consensus included increasing math and reading scores, improving communication and curriculum enhancement.

    There was widespread consensus among the focus groups and board members that the district strives for excellence in all areas of education. A supportive community and a wide array of offerings in academic and extracurricular activities were also considered strengths by the focus groups and board members.

    Phillips said that her group also looked at perceived barriers in the focus group and among board members. She said that the most prevalent barriers were lack of financial resources, communication problems and lack of a shared vision. 

    In summary, Phillips said the characteristics that the board and the focus groups hope to find in the district’s next superintendent include; excellent communication skills, a collaborative leadership style and high visibility in the community.

    Oslund said that his group took all of the information presented by Phillips as well as the results of an online survey administered by the district and attempted to create a profile of the ideal candidate. 514 respondents participated in the online survey. He said the response reflected the views of the board and the focus groups to a large extent, with one exception - large class sizes were a bigger concern for those who took the online survey than the focus groups and board.

    The desired superintendent profile that was developed from input through the online survey as well as board and focus group input. Oslund enumerated over two dozen desirable characteristics that the next superintendent should have that were synthesized from the input. In addition, each characteristic had several attributes. At the conclusion of his presentation, Oslund gave some context to the list of desirable traits saying “Obviously, anyone who has all of those qualities to the highest level… It’s like we always say: You can’t walk on water but it really helps to know where the rocks are.” He concluded his remarks by adding; “You’re not going to find someone who is a 10 in all those areas but someone who is competent in the vast majority of those areas and is not adversely affecting any of them, that’s what you need.” The board voted to accept the report from School Exec Connect.

    Oslund represented School Exec Connect 2017 when the district contracted with the firm to find a replacement for Bruce Thomas when he retired. At that time, Oslund used similar methods to create a profile of the district. In 2017, Oslund said that there was a lack of trust between the community and the district, communication was a problem and facility issues loomed large.

    In other business, the board:

    • Accepted three bus driver resignations, five coaching resignations and voted to fill 6 coaching, one staff position, and two ESP positions.

    • Approved the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 principal’s contracts.

    • Approved the designation of Sean Martinson as Lead Education Agency representative.

    • Accepted the first reading of Policy 603 on curriculum development.

    • Accepted the first reading of Policy 616 on School District System Accountability.

    • Accepted the first reading of Policy 618 on assessment of student achievement. 

    • Accepted the first reading of Policy 624 on online learning options.

    • Accepted statutory changes to Policy 611 on home schooling.

US Steel to eliminate non-union jobs

November 14, 2019

BusinessNorth Report

 

    US Steel officials say due to a new operating structure and challenging market conditions, they have eliminated a number of non-union represented positions in the United States, which includes the facilities at Minntac in Mountain Iron and Keetac in Keewatin.

    A spokesperson with the company says the new operating structure was announced on Oct. 8, and leaders looked to find ways to efficiently execute the change.

    The spokesperson says as part of the process, the positions were eliminated, but couldn’t confirm the number of positions eliminated.

    The Minneapolis-Star Tribune, however, reported that the job losses at the two plants could be as high as 40 positions.

U.S. Steel shipments rise

October 17, 2019

    Steel shipments from American steel mills increased 4.4 percent in August compared to July, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Iron and Steel Institute.

    U.S. steel mills in August shipped 8,472,088 net tons, up from 8,115,103 net tons shipped in July. Shipments in August were also up 0.4 percent from the 8,441,597 net tons shipped in August 2018.

    Year-to-date 2019 steel shipments were 64,810,436 net tons, a 1.8 percent increase versus year-to-date shipments of 63,656,882 net tons for the first eight months of 2018.

    Hot rolled shipments in August were up 10 percent, hot dipped and galvanized sheets and strip, up seven percent, and cold rolled sheets, up three percent.

Bovey makes its case before the state senate bonding committee

September 19, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee came to Grand Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 10 to hear about projects seeking bonding in the next legislative session. Included in the presentations were the city of Bovey water, sewer and road projects; the cities of Nashwauk, Keewatin and Lone Pine Township phase 2 sewer project (connecting Lone Pine Township to the system); the Grand Rapids IRA Civic Center roof project; and Itasca Community College asset preservation.

    Bovey Mayor Robert Stein and Public Works Supervisor Kevin Odden spoke on the serious concerns the city has with sewer and water infrastructure. Capital improvements of $1.1 million are planned for 2,900 feet of water main replacement, 650 feet of sanitary sewer replacement and 3,200 feet of street restoration. The city is asking for $600,000 in state bonding funds, or about 54 percent of the cost. 

    Although the city is active in fixing its own issues with its own money, said Stein, it has only so much tax capacity and ability to pay increased taxes. Median household income in the city is just over $31,000 and there is a 29 percent poverty rate. Elderly in the community are on a fixed income.

    In response to questions from the committee, Odden said water and sewer cost residents a flat $62.50 per month, with the last water rate increase three years ago. Recent sewer rate increases include $5, $1 and $4.50 in recent years. In addition, $3 per month is paid into a capital improvement fund to pay for breaks and blockages in the system, running about $25,000 annually.

IRRRB funds solar plant, Grand Rapids treatment facility

September 12, 2019

By Bill Hanna

 

    A solar panel manufacturer in Mountain Iron will soon add 15 employees to its current workforce of 91 with the help of an Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board $600,000 loan.

    The IRRRB approved the loan request of Heliene USA Inc. on Monday at the agency’s headquarters in Eveleth.

    Canadian-based Heliene officials say the loan is needed to purchase additional production equipment to meet a growing demand the solar market experienced during the decade, which is forecast to continue at a significant rate.

    The new equipment will break through a bottleneck in the company’s production, officials say.

    The loan is secured with the equipment to be purchased.

    Growth in the U.S. solar marketplace has increased from 1,500 megawatts in 2010 to 13,000 megawatts this year, but domestic production is currently only at 2,000 megawatts, according to company officials.

    Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk told board members that the company is financially healthy and has an $11 million working line of credit in place.

    But he also said that 2018 was the first year that Heliene has lost money, citing global trade uncertainties.

    The Iron Range’s initial foray into the solar panel business was a failure. 

    Silicon Energy, which began operations on the Range in 2011, closed its Mountain Iron plant’s doors in June 2017. It was an outcome that seemed almost inevitable from the start.

    Employment numbers never met expectations as the business would stop, start up, then stop again. Meanwhile, the plant’s parking lot was most often near-empty.

    It was a troubling pattern for the company, which also had product flaws adding to its financial woes.

    Silicon officials said forces out of their control were mostly responsible for the shutdown. Silicon couldn’t compete with cheaply-made Chinese solar panels that flooded the market, they said.

    Silicon received an IRRRB $1.5 million equipment loan that is still outstanding, with a repayment deal worked out between the agency and Silicon’s former owner.

    That agreement calls for the former owner to make payments of $100,000 a year until $1.1 million owed is paid off, said Matt Sjoberg, IRRRB’s executive director of development, on Monday. The interest is forgiven as part of the deal.

    Heliene operates in a Renewable Energy Park facility in Mountain Iron, which is owned by the Mountain Iron Economic Development Agency. When Silicon shut down, the company sold the building to Mountain Iron for $1.

    It was built with a $3.6 million IRRRB loan and it had previously been leased to the now defunct Silicon Energy.

    The IRRRB and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development have partnered with Heliene USA by providing a $3.5 million equipment loan. That loan is currently in a forbearance period with the first payment due in November.

    The IRRRB on Monday provided financial help for a youth mental health issue on the Iron Range.

    The board approved a $1 million loan for a new 32-bed treatment center in Grand Rapids to be operated by North Homes Children and Family Services.

    The $6.5 million psychiatric treatment facility will serve children ages 11-18, with education to be provided by the Grand Rapids School District.

    North Homes was recently given state approval for 52 children’s psychiatric beds. Twenty of the beds will be located at the Community Mental Health Center, with the other 32 going into the new facility.

    Services for the children will be 24/7 nursing support along with traditional intensive mental health therapy in a residential setting.

    In addition, the board also approved a $17,000 demolition grant and a $268,000 infrastructure grant for North Homes.

    The loan will help create 65-80 new jobs with wages ranging from $31,000 to $75,000 per year.

    The board OK’d a $760,000, 20-year loan to a Hibbing company that will create 10 to 13 new jobs with annual wages of $30,000 to $69,000.

    Northern Opportunities, LLC/RSF Industries Inc. plans to expand its manufacturing operations.

    “The ability to pivot across industrial segments e.g. mining, manufacturing, medical components, consumer goods, forestry products, aviation and utilities was a key component in our decision to focus on the acquisition of this type of business,” said co-owner Jeff Halter.

    The total project cost is $1.925 million.

 

    Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a reporter and executive editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.

Twin Metals, labor share strong partnership

August 29, 2019

    By Bill Hanna

 

    Twin Metals Minnesota and the building trades sealed a strong partnership last week in advance of the company’s construction phase for the proposed copper/nickel/precious metals underground mine.

    Bathed in sunshine under a canopy of partly cloudy skies, company and labor officials were joined by supportive elected officials for a signing ceremony of a project labor agreement between Twin Metals and the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council.

    It commits Twin Metals to hire union workers for the construction phase of the underground mine once permits are granted.

    Dean DeBeltz, TMM’s director of operations and safety and from a fourth-generation mining family, told those gathered for the ceremony just outside the company’s operational headquarters in Ely that a mine plan should be ready to deliver to appropriate agencies for review in the coming months.

    “We are committed to this project and to do it right,” said Twin Metals CEO Kelly Osborne. “We’ve been here (in Ely) for 10 years. Community support is what we’re all about.”

    TMM is working with the federal Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other regulatory agencies to facilitate the process. That process will include rigorous government scrutiny and numerous  chances for public input.

    The $1.2 billion underground mine project is slated to be located nine miles southeast of Ely and 11 miles northeast of Babbitt. Copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver of the Maturi deposit, which is part of the Duluth Complex, is to be tapped for processing.

    The project would create 700 direct jobs and another 1,400 in spin-off employment, with a second regional office located in Babbitt.

    The mine, accessed through underground tunnels at the processing site located about one mile from the mine, is expected to produce approximately 20,000 tons of ore per day.

    Labor leaders were enthusiastic about the several million hours of union construction labor needed for the project, which would be similar in scope to construction of the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

    “Our partnership with Twin Metals continues a strong tradition of union labor on the Iron Range,” said Mike Syversrud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council. “We will get this done on schedule, under budget and safely.”

    Osborne lauded Iron Range labor workers.

    “As we prepare to file our mine plan of operations, it’s important that we further solidify our partnership with labor and ensure that the construction phase of our project will be completed by professionals whose specialized skills are essential to the premier quality work we insist on,” the CEO said.

    TMM was praised for its $450 million already put into the project and Ely community.

    Twin Metals has already had “an immense community involvement,” said Nancy Norr, board chairwoman of Jobs for Minnesotans, while kicking off the program.

    “This is a great day,” said Ely Mayor Chuck Novak. “Twin Metals’ contribution to the city has been pretty strong. And they have an open door. They’re all about the safety of people and environmental safety.”

    Republican 8th District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber was upbeat.

    “This is about our minerals and the future to give people more opportunity,” he said.

    Stauber vehemently rejected arguments of critics of the project, who contend it will damage the environment. Opponents are especially agitated because the mine is proposed at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

    “We are blessed to have the Duluth Complex. And we demand safety,” he said. “This is in our backyard. This is not a playground for those who live south of here. Today we look to the future to give people more opportunity.”

    Stauber added that the PLA is another example of the “fight for our way of life. The men and women of labor will make this possible.”

    The first-term lawmaker also praised the Donald Trump administration for putting the project back on track by reinstating the leases. He said with 16 days left in the Barack Obama administration, the former president tried to end the project.

    DFL State Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm said, “This is about the middle class. It’s a really, really big deal. Let’s go forward and support the new-age economy,” he said.

    The senator also fired a salvo at opponents of the project, explaining “If you want windmills, you’ve got to mine.” He was referring to a variety of nonferrous metals used in windmills.

    State Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls said the PLA ensures the project will get done properly.

    Norr said the project is about mining pioneers on the Range and those of the future.

    Mayor Chuck Novak also referred to his city’s mining history. He said critics often talk about the boom-bust cycle of mining.

    “Well, we had a 100-year boom up here,” Novak said about the many mines that once operated in the city. The mayor added he would like to see another 100-year boom with mining of the rich Duluth Complex.

    

    Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.

Coleraine moves forward with stormwater project grant writing

August 22, 2019

    At last week’s Coleraine City Council meeting, Tim Frits from Itasca Soil and Water presented the city council with the next stage in the funding process for the Coleraine Stormwater Retrofit Project.

 

    Frits suggested an application for a $700,000 Clean Water Fund competitive grant through the Minnesota State Board of Water and Soil Resources. In an interview with District Manager Andy Arens of Itasca Soil and Water, Arens said the City of Coleraine would have about a 20 percent chance of receiving the grant. If received, the grant would require a $175,000 match from Coleraine that could be given in cash or in-kind services including volunteer labor. Councilors voted to begin the grant writing process for the $700K grant. The grant writing will be completed by the Itasca Soil and Water personnel. 

    Arens described the Itasca Soil and Water District as a political subdivision of the State of Minnesota and they are entirely grant-funded with seven employees. Arens said every county in the United States is represented by a similar conservation program and these programs were initiated after the dust bowl of the 1930’s. 

    Councilors agreed to extend the deadline four weeks on the Bovey Lift Station Number 2 portion of the Force Main project. The extension was requested by Project Manager Shane Feltus from TNT Aggregates in order to remove boulders on the right-of-way and also to comply with Change Order Two, which will save $98,233.15 from the total cost of the project. 

    Coleraine Police Chief Lonnie Mjolsness mentioned in his monthly report that the public is welcome to an ‘Outsmart the Scammers’ seminar at the Trout Lake Emergency Center with the target date being Aug. 27 at 10:30 a.m. The presenter will be Financial Advisor Michelle Rodenberg from Edward Jones financial. The TLEC is located at 501 Second Ave. in Bovey.

    A concerned resident commented on the repainted crosswalks and said they look nice but also questioned if there should be a designated crosswalk near Range Bottle Gas where children cross County 61 to access the Mesabi Bike Trail.

    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to pass the new sexual assault investigation policy.

    • Approved the donation of a boat from the Jim Rhodes family.

    • Set the date for the 2020 budget planning work session for August 26 at 2:30 p.m.

    • Approved a liquor license for the Locker Room Bar.

    • Voted to approve the revised contract for count-ordered community service which states that any worker who is dismissed from the worksite will not receive credit for completed hours.

    • Voted to approve a request for a zoning change from farm residential to light industrial/commercial on property along Hwy. 169.

    • Approved payment number 4 for the Force Main Project.

Cliffs celebrates $100 million investment

August 15, 2019

By Ron Brochu

 

    Minnesota’s Iron Range received a life-extending boost last month when Cleveland-Cliffs began producing DR-grade pellets at its Northshore Mining plant. 

    The company, which invested $100 million to mass produce the upgraded product, celebrated that achievement at its Silver Bay plant on Lake Superior last week.

    To the naked eye, DR-grade pellets look like taconite, but they’re more valuable. The pellets create a new market for iron ore processors, which can be sold to companies that convert it to hot-briquetted iron, then feed it into electric arc furnaces that produce steel. Although most domestic steel once was made in blast furnaces, where taconite is the feedstock, 68 percent of today’s domestic steel is manufactured in electric arc furnaces, which consume scrap steel but need the higher-grade virgin iron to raise steel quality to a higher level.

    “DR-grade pellets will add at least 100 more years of mining in Northeast Minnesota,” Cliffs President, CEO and Board Chair Lourenco Goncalves told guests at the company’s ribbon cutting and celebration.

    With the upgrade, Northshore Steel is capable of producing both traditional taconite and DR-grade pellets using magnetite ore mined in Babbitt. Last year, it produced 5.6 million gross tons of taconite in Silver Bay. Moving forward, about 3.5 million tons of the total will be DR-grade.

    “This will be the only plant in the United States to produce low-silica, high-grade DR pellets,” said State Rep. Bob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls. 

    It’s not the first time Northshore Mining has been a pioneer in the industry. When it opened in 1956, it was the first taconite processing plant in the country. 

    The investment is part of a larger Cliffs plan that will move the overall investment past $1 billion. It is constructing a plant in Toledo, Ohio, that will use DR pellets to produce hot briquetted iron (HBI). That facility is set for completion next year, and Cliffs already has HBI customers.

    Originally, Cliffs had hoped to build its HBI plant near Nashwauk, Goncalves said. To make the plan work, it needed cooperation from the state of Minnesota and Federal Bankruptcy Court, which was seeking a party to restructure the bankrupt Essar Steel Minnesota development. 

    “We needed everyone to push in the same direction,” Goncalves explained during his presentation. But that didn’t happen. 

    “I was surprised when Gov. Dayton pulled the rug from under me,” he said. Meanwhile, the bankruptcy court didn’t select Cliffs’ restructuring bid and instead awarded it to another entity that quickly became insolvent and declared bankruptcy.

    Goncalves didn’t dwell on that dispute Tuesday but suggested Cliffs remains interested in Minnesota.

    “Minnesota is a natural site for an HBI plant,” he said, noting that Cliffs already controls half of the minerals near Nashwauk, site of Essar’s partially completed processing facility.

    He received support from U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown. 

    “This is our way of life” in rural Northeastern Minnesota, Stauber said. “We want to make American steel using American workers.”

    Goncalves noted that Cleveland-Cliffs and other U.S.-based iron and steel firms have rebounded since federal officials have placed tariffs on imports, particularly imports from China. Heavy industry in China, he explained, has undercut American competitors by selling at lower prices. That’s because, unlike Cliffs, they pollute heavily, Goncalves said, which reduces their costs. 

    “We have the most environmentally compliant steel industry in the world because we use 100 percent pellets,” he said, as opposed to dusty fines used in many other countries.

Greenway takes a pass on shared facilities talks

August 08, 2019

By Kitty Mayo

 

    In an exchange of letters last month Nashwauk-Keewatin and Greenway school districts each spelled out their perspective on near-future collaborations.

    Initiated by Nashwauk-Keewatin’s school board, a letter was sent out to Greenway asking them to open discussion on how the two districts might further their relationship, including sharing facilities.

    Nashwauk-Keewatin’s letter states: “Both school districts could double down on efforts to revive, rejuvenate, or replace the facilities we have, but at some point it ceases to make sense for the taxpayers in our communities to invest in facilities that may be structurally adequate and still fall short educationally.”

    However, Greenway’s response was clear that they were declining to enter into any conversation about new facilities or co-located facilities for the time being.

    According to Greenway Superintendent David Pace, the Greenway school board would like to continue to work with Nashwauk-Keewatin in any capacity that involves programming, but currently has its own plan for handling facility needs at this time. 

    “Greenway has made significant investment in the high school cafeteria and multi-purpose room and already closed the northeast building. In addition to making plans for further investments in our buildings, we have to take a look at how our debt has been structured in the past,” Pace stated.

    While Pace says that sharing facilities is not an immediate option, he says Greenway is open to shared curriculum strategies, and other shared opportunities for students from both districts.

    “I think the framework for collaboration has already been made with the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative in both districts, and down the road there are other alternatives to working together. We need to let these collaborations build and grow first before we look at facilities,” Pace said.

    Matt Grose, superintendent for Nashwauk-Keewatin, says his district is working on developing a thoughtful approach to what the district’s future will look like, and colors the letter in terms of exploration.

    “We initiated a conversation of a partnership with Greenway seeking openness to exploring that, nobody is proposing anything specific about consolidating or building, and we know we also have a lot in common and connections with Hibbing and Chisholm,” Pace stated.

    Now, more than 50 years into the Nashwauk-Keewatin merger, Grose says the district’s aging buildings will continue to need investment.

    “As a district we are trying to plan for the future knowing we have buildings that will be 100 next year by finding the best sustainable opportunity that also acknowledges our uniqueness,” said Grose.

    Acknowledging appreciation that the door is at least open to ongoing discussion on the level of programming collaboration, Grose says this coming school year is already moving in that direction.

    “The vision is for those kind of experiences in a variety of districts without worrying so much about whose pupil unit they are,” Grose said.

    Currently some students from Nashwauk-Keewatin attend the Health Care Career Pathway program at Greenway using a grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and students from Greenway will be attending Nashwauk-Keewatin for Manufacturing Career Pathway internships.

    “We want more opportunities for educational success and some degree of scale and creativity is needed, we need to grow and rethink the opportunities we are providing because our world has changed and what kids need to experience in an education has changed,” said Grose.

Former health care CEO: delivery is changing rapidl

August 01, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Health care delivery is changing in a world of Amazon, big data and high speed networks. And that change is accelerating.

    That was the message given by John Strange, recently retired CEO of St. Luke’s Health Care System in Duluth to the Bigfork Valley board, leadership and medical staff. The hospital was holding a visioning session in July to kick off its annual strategic planning.

    Strange pointed out that his comments were his own observations. “I’m a dreamer,” he explained; trying to look at what the health care world will look like 3-5 years out. 

    He recalled a conversation when he was asked to name the competition. “Essentia” seemed the obvious answer. “Really?” was the response.

    That was an eye-opening moment. What if your drugs came by drone an hour after you ordered them? And what if that prescription was written by an online doctor? What if that doctor was alerted by your watch that you had fallen? 

    Sound fantastic? 

    Amazon, Google and Apple are all players now in health care. Amazon entered the retail health care market with the purchase of Pillpack and Whole Foods Co-op. It found that 85 percent of Amazon users were willing to buy drugs from the online company. Currently it is developing a privacy-compliant Alexa for patient rooms.

    And, pointed out Strange, Amazon has no problem serving a rural market.

    Those companies are in the business of managing data, and the amount of health care data is exploding. In 1900, medical knowledge was doubling every 150 years. By 1960 it was doubling every 10 years. By 2020, it’s projected to double every 72 days.

    As the forefront of health care delivery is rushing toward a virtual marketplace, though, where is the patient? Is he/she in front of a computer or walking in the clinic doors?

    It turns out to depend largely on the patient’s age. The senior generations have loyalty to one doctor, and that doctor is trusted. Gen Z – born in 1995 and later - on the other hand, sees an online provider as the same as a personal visit.

    A major change came in with the Millennials – those born between 1989 and 1994. Convenience became the most important criteria and outreach clinics were set up. Since 2006 the number of urgent care clinics has increased by 500 percent, and a third of patients are using the clinics as primary care. Up to half of Millennials have no primary doctor, Strange said. 

    It is retail medicine, and it has a name – consumerism. Of five reasons for choosing a clinic – quality of care, brand reputation, doctor/nurse conduct, insurance and convenience – convenience was the most and quality of care was the least important to those surveyed.

    All of this is challenging to a hospital that wants to be the provider of choice – and wants to stay relevant. Each of the five generations between the traditionalists born before 1946 and Gen Z has different comfort levels with technology, different attitudes toward their own health care and different ways they can be reached. With an eye on the future, the present market still has to be served.

    To compound this dilemma for hospitals, socio/political trends have changed. Hospitals are being asked to move toward keeping their populations healthy and out of the hospital. In a survey of 21 million insured patients between 2003 and 2007, one percent used 29 percent of the health care dollar; ten percent used 60 percent of that dollar.

    It’s a change of mindset. “We’re good at trauma,” said Strange. “But not at chronic disease.” But what hospitals get paid for care by government insurers like Medicare may depend on how well a hospital does at keeping patients out of the hospital.

    One way to figure out this new landscape is to work together. There are huge opportunities for players to come together to reduce costs, he said. Wilderness Health, a group of seven regional hospitals including Bigfork Valley, is one way local hospitals are cooperating. One outcome of this is Wilderness Pharmacy, where St. Luke’s pharmacists take weekend and night calls for smaller hospitals.

    It’s a new health care world, but Strange is optimistic about Bigfork. “I always thought Bigfork has something special,” he said. 

Vandals cause damage at Keewatin Elementary

July 25, 2019

    Keewatin Elementary Principal, Anne Olson-Reiners was on hand July 17 to update the Nashwauk-Keewatin School Board on activities at the school, which included a break-in on the first floor the evening previous. 

    Olson-Reiners said the vandals threw pre-school toys on the floor and broke several chairs by throwing them through closet doors in a third grade classroom. The elementary principal said there were seven vandals in all, and that she could positively identify at least three of them from surveillance camera footage.

    Olson-Reiners expressed frustration with the school’s surveillance cameras. She reported that one camera that could have provided footage allowing officials to identify all seven of the vandals was not working. She said there were currently four cameras that were not functional at Keewatin Elementary. 

    Olson-Reiners indicated that all four cameras had broken in the last two years. “It is important that we try to fix something. It doesn’t have to be fancy but we have to try,” she said. 

    There are approximately 12-15 cameras located throughout the school. Olson-Reiners estimated damage caused by the vandalism to be about $600.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved the School Resource Officer agreement for the coming year.

    • Approved the annual 10 year maintenance plan

    • Appointed Superintendent Matt Grose as the District’s Identified Official With Authority.

Bigfork City Council hears Ash Street project update, rescheduled for 2020

July 22, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Bigfork City Council met on Thursday, June 11 at 5:30 a.m. at City Hall. Council members David Mann, Drew Francisco and Mayor Bryan Boone were present. The Oath of Office was administered to new Junior Council Member Hannah Johnson, a senior at Bigfork High School.

    There were no public comments. It was noted that annual performance reviews for full time employees were conducted during the closed meeting on Thursday, June 13. 

    A work session was held on Thursday, June 27 with Sarah Carling of Community Economic Development Associates in an outreach program sponsored by the Itasca Economic Development Corporation. The program will include business topics such as a commercial property inventory and rent study, and identification of civic projects. For the latter, the council did a Strength/Weakness/Opportunity/Threat analysis and talked about possible projects. Carling will prepare a first impression report on city appearance and reputation along with a summary of the June 27 meeting.

    Joe Sutherland of Widseth Smith Nolting updated the council on the Ash and Rajala Mill Road construction project. Drawings have been submitted to the Itasca County Transportation Department and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Duluth) and comments received. Ash Street is being designed as a 10 ton road with an 11-12 inch gravel base and 5 inch asphalt surface. Responding to comments from the county, drainage is being addressed. Widseth Smith Nolting requested a waiver to design the road to 30 mph instead of 40 mph, which will tighten the footprint of construction, and anticipates approval. MnDOT has indicated it will address new standards for pedestrian ramps at the Ash St./Hwy. 38 intersection during a future reconstruction project instead of this current project, and that it will furnish the culvert near the mill for city contractors to install if needed. The company recommended that bids be let in December or January with award in March and start of construction in June 2020 to improve pricing. 

    A short comprehensive plan update is expected this year from the Northern Itasca Joint Planning Board based on council input and the results of the June 27 work session. The full plan will be updated next year in a schedule which will include an internal city meeting, public input sessions and draft comment period. 

    A hearing had been scheduled for a Nuisance Ordinance Violation: furniture, appliances, unlicensed cars, etc. in yards at the Eagle Nest trailer park, but the owner did not appear nor contact the city. A letter will be sent requesting contact and clean up information by next meeting with the possibility of fines if progress is not made.

    A mayoral letter was approved for attorney review and subsequent publishing on the community’s desire to maintain a drug-free environment.

    In other business, the council:

    • Approved June payroll and claims paid and July claims for payment of $89,691.94.

    • Appointed Councilor Paul Gustafson to the Budget Committee along with standing members Mayor Bryan Boone, Clerk Angie Storlie and Public Works Superintendent Joe Zimmer.

    • Received and will act on a letter describing maintenance concerns for the National Scenic Byway Highway 38 kiosk and signage.

    • Approved a use request for a September event on the Bigfork River Walk Trail.

    The next regular city council meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Bigfork City Hall.

    Complete minutes are posted on www.cityofbigfork.com.

Business-led model could improve K-12 outcome

July 05, 2019

By Manja Holter

 

    Much has been written about the skilled labor shortage that plagues Northern Minnesota. The root of the problem is often placed in the high school arena, which reportedly doesn’t adequately prepare students for the workforce

    An innovative secondary education model aims to address this issue by shifting from the traditional subject-based high school model to a career academy concept, which promises to be more project based, hands-on, student centered and interdisciplinary.

    Coined the academies concept, the idea behind it is essentially as follows:

    Within a high school, small learning communities, called academies, feature a core curriculum of English, math, science, social studies, physical education/health and general/global electives as a requirement for graduation. What’s different is that the content of these core subjects is tailored to the specific field a student would like to go into professionally.

    As high school freshmen, students can explore different career choices and then pick an academy to join for their sophomore, junior and senior years. 

    The concept of small learning communities originated in Nashville, Tenn., and is growing across the nation as an effective model to prepare all students for college and a career.

Now this model is going to be implemented in Northern Minnesota. 

    The school districts of Virginia and Eveleth/Gilbert passed a $181 million dollar referendum in May, which has the construction of a new grades 7-12 collaborative academies based high school at its core.

    Support for the referendum was overwhelmingly high in both districts. Virginia approved the measure by 68 percent and Eveleth-Gilbert by 58 percent.

    This comes as little surprise since the incentives for community members to vote in favor of the project were exceptional. Going forward, taxpayers will only have to foot 20 percent of the total project cost bill. The remaining 80 percent are covered by the state of Minnesota and the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation. 

    Local taxpayers will pay $2.7 million annually over the course of the next 20 years, while the state contributes $6 million annually during the same time span.

    The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation approved the contribution of $4.9 million annually for 20 years from its School Consolidation and Cooperatively Operated School Fund.

    Considering the uniqueness of this funding package, both districts were presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity to catapult their students into a 21st century learning space.

    Virginia Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt said, “We’re putting a state-of-the-art world class school, by any measure, right in our backyard. People from other areas will absolutely take notice and we will get a lot of attention from other school districts from the upper Midwest looking at what’s happening here.” 

    The magnitude of the project is staggering, he explained.

    “We are not just talking about new buildings. We are also talking about educating our high school students with an entirely new system and two separate districts working together. I believe this will head towards consolidation. You have literally every system within these two school districts changing.”

The districts of Eveleth/Gilbert and Virginia were inspired by the success of another Minnesota school district farther southwest. 

    The high school of Alexandria, Minn., implemented the small learning communities in the fall of 2014. Called the Academies of Alexandria, the school graduated its first class of students that went through the new program from 9-12 grade, last spring.

    “We’ve only been fully implemented for one year yet the growth has been fabulous,” said Alexandria Superintendent Julie Critz. “We have a group of community leaders, business owners and CEOs that we call the Champions Committee. I heard one of them say that this has been the most significant change in Alexandria that has enacted our community growth, our job growth and recruiting efforts.”

    Critz said the local hospital and manufacturing firms have reported what a difference the improved high school has made for local businesses to attract physicians and engineers.

    “Our student surveys show that the kids are more engaged as well,” she said. Critz meets with students three times a year for polling and consistently hears that they like the real life learning and the business related experiences and connections they make. 

    According to their testimony, the kids like the application of learning rather than exclusive learning in the classroom. “Our student enrollment has increased, and the number of struggling learners has decreased. While our high performing students continue to excel, we were able to increase the number of students who are accessing college credit learning.”

    Her administration was inspired by schools in Nashville that operate as so called wall-to-wall academies. When visiting those institutions, she was impressed with the deep community involvement and business engagement motto of the approach.

    Critz meets every other month with the Champions Committee. It oversees the entire academy model. Further into the structure, each academy has its own business partnership board. Those boards meet more frequently and are involved with developing career pathways for students, programs of study and curriculum. 

    “Our business partners contribute a lot to the development of the program for each academy. They’re helping us to be more nimble and to adapt our curriculum to what is relevant in the business world,” said Critz.

    The Eveleth-Gilbert/Virginia collaboration has been two years in the making. Eighty-nine community meetings with students, citizens and business leaders were held.

    “The concept of business-school relationships has resonated tremendously within our community,” said Schmidt. “That our kids will be having a better sequence from high school to their post-secondary education has made a lot of sense to folks up here.”

    Schmidt said internal anonymous surveys revealed that 90 percent of the teaching body are in favor of the new academies approach, and he doesn’t anticipate any resistance from his staff.

    Following the analysis of a regional industry and occupational data report, the school districts agreed on the creation of the following three academies: 

    • Business, Management, Administration, Arts, Communications & Information Systems

    • Engineering, Manufacturing, Technology, Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

    • Health Science Technology and Human Services

    It is apparent for the career academies model to produce the desired outcomes, business involvement is of the essence.

    Now that the referendum in Virginia and Eveleth/Gilbert is passed, the administration of both school districts have three years’ time to forge relationships that will enrich the new curriculum. 

    This is how long it will take for the new high school with its academies to be built.

For now, idled US Steel blast furnaces won’t impact Minntac, Keetac

June 28, 2019

By Bill Hanna 

 

    U.S. Steel officials say the company’s pellet operations on the Iron Range will not be affected at this time by the idling of two blast furnaces‚ one in Gary, Ind., the other at Great Lakes in Detroit. 

    U.S. Steel owns and operates the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron and Keetac in Keewatin. The company also has 14.7 percent ownership at Hibbing Taconite.

    Minntac produces about 16 million tons of ore pellets annually, while Keetac has a capacity of 6 million tons.

    Minntac and Keetac, which experienced widespread layoffs in 2015 for more than a year, are both currently operating at full production.

    The company released a statement regarding the Iron Range operations. It said, “Based on current market conditions, there are currently no plans to adjust our Minnesota iron ore mining operations.”

    U.S. Steel announced last Tuesday, that the Gary Works blast furnace in Indiana will be temporarily idled because of falling steel prices, orders and revenue. There is no timeline for a restart. Gary Works blast furnaces produce steel for cars, appliances and other products.The company said in a memo “that there would be no immediate impact on employment levels at the mill, but that the company is “mindful of the impact these announcements have on employees and their families.”

    The company also plans to leave a blast furnace near Detroit offline after the completion of a planned maintenance outage that started last week.

    The temporary idlings will reduce the blast furnace production of pig iron by 200,000 to 250,000 tons a month starting in July.

    “If both furnaces remain idled for the remainder of the year, we expect full year flat-rolled shipments to third-party customers to be approximately 11 million tons,” the company said. “We will resume blast furnace production at one or both idled blast furnaces when market conditions improve.” 

    In addition, U.S. Steel plans to idle a blast furnace in Europe with a production capacity of 125,000 tons a month. It will cut production by 3.6 million tons if it remains idled for the year.

    District 3 state Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, said idling of the Gary Works blast furnace creates “a lot of uncertainty on the Range with the shrinking demand for cars and appliances. No blast furnace, no pellets.”

    The DFL senator said he hopes it’s “not a precursor of a recession.”

    But Bakk said a likely interest rate cut by the Fed next month is another sign of economic instability.

    “We’re in the 10th year of an economic expansion. We’ve seen these cycles before. And the Range is always on the front end of a downturn,” he said.

    BusinessNorth Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.

Community banks fill the gap in rural communities

June 20, 2019

By Manja Holter

 

    Large national banks made recent announcements they will close a significant number of branches as well as drive-through lanes in the near future, citing a shift in consumer behavior toward online and mobile banking. Community banks offer those services as well, so will they follow suit?

    Wells Fargo, which pulled the plug on 250 branches last year announced in 2018 it would shut down 800 more branches by 2020. The bank’s billion dollar legal costs in the wake of numerous misconduct allegations might be at the core of this development, but the behemoth is hardly alone.

    JPMorgan Chase closed 9 percent of its branches between 2012 and 2016, while Bank of America shuttered 15 percent, according to research conducted by financial market analyst CLSA.

    The driving force behind these closures is a general decline in transactions conducted in brick-and-mortar bank branches. 

    As national banks are closing rural branches, community banks are picking up the slack. 

    Noah W. Wilcox, president and CEO of Grand Rapids State Bank, offered the following statistic: “One in five counties in the United States are only serviced by a community bank.”

    So, how do community bankers assess their future? Are community bank branches and drive-ups becoming obsolete?

    Brian Nicklason is the president of Itasca County-headquartered Woodland Bank, a family owned business first chartered in 1920. It currently has four branch offices located in Grand Rapids, Cohasset, Deer River and Hill City.

    “We are seeing a significant change in volume related to the internet banking. Our web-based banking is up from last year. We have over 9,000 more visitors per month and our mobile banking is up almost 500 transactions per month,” said Nicklason.

    But even with this development, Nicklason said he is far from considering closing any of his branches. 

    In fact, he makes one key distinction: “The big banks are referred to as transactional banks because they focus on the amount of transactions. Community banks on the other hand are more relationship based.”

    He said the expectation of his customers is to have a physical location. “If you want to open an account or need a loan, it is still nice to talk to a person.” 

    Wilcox views the impact of online and mobile banking on his business rather favorably. “It is another delivery channel for a different segment of our customer base that prefers to interact with us remotely,” he said. “Certain demographics like to do things differently and it is not always the younger generation that wants mobile services. We have a significant customer base between early 40s and 60s that are heavy mobile banking users.”

    While in-store transactions are declining for both banks, drive-up transactions remain strong. 

    “Last Friday we had 120 drive-ups at our Grand Rapids office alone,” said Nicklason. He stated that if expansions are on the horizon, drive-up windows will be part of those plans. “We will always have a drive-up. We believe it is very valuable,” he said. 

    Wilcox echoed this sentiment. “We have not had any decline in our drive-through transactions, in fact, it is pretty steady.” 

    Will we see fewer tellers?

    Nicklason said he was able to tweak branch office hours, according to the data he collected. His bank tracks transactions by the hour, by branch and by session. 

“This allows us to extend our hours and still serve our customers efficiently,” he said.

Nicklason added there is still a customer base that values the personal service. “We have to offer a little bit of everything to everybody.” Personal service means maintaining a physical branch as well as experienced staff. “It is a little more expensive way, but I believe it’s the way it has to be.”

    Wilcox on the other hand, estimates he employs fewer tellers now than he did 10 or 15 years ago. When Grand Rapids State Bank remodeled one of its offices in 2008, the number of teller windows was reduced by half.

    Are vaults and safety deposit boxes a thing of the past?

    Just until a few decades ago banks protected their money with gigantic vaults housed in formidable buildings. “Those shiny vaults have since been replaced by security systems,” said Nicklason. 

    What’s more, the stuff that was stored in the vaults, paper money, is becoming less as well. There is simply less need to have large amounts of cash on hand in each office, since the population is moving away from using it. “We’ve seen our debit card activity increase significantly. People just don’t use cash as much,” said Nicklason.

    Surprisingly, demand for safe deposit boxes is still strong. 

    “We’ve been in the storage business forever,” said Nicklason, likening his bank to a self-storage business. He said all his branches are at maximum capacity. 

    Although safe deposit boxes are not very profitable for banks when taking the liability into account, both Nicklason and Wilcox feel the product is part of customer service. “We still see an element of our customer base that wants this service,” Nicklason said. He said demand for the bigger boxes is on the rise, while the smaller units are falling out of favor. 

    Wilcox said they witnessed no decline in safe deposit box usage. “The majority of our boxes are rented and remain that way,” he said. “There are customers that value the peace of mind of having their cherished items protected in that way and kept safe.”

    Are paper checks going away?

    Generally speaking, banks are discouraging the use of paper checks because their processing is more expensive than check image processing. However, banks make a small percentage when customers order check blanks. And while paper check usage is steadily on the decline, Nicklason is still surprised how much revenue continues to be generated through this channel. 

    Even though debit card use is at an all-time high, Nicklason doesn’t believe there will be a cashless society any time soon, and until then he thinks the paper check will have a niche. 

    “There is a place for paper checks. A segment of our population still likes to pay that way,” agreed Wilcox.

How does FinTech impact community banks?

    Banks in general keep a watchful eye on so-called FinTech start-ups that peel off one profitable service after another.

    FinTech, a portmanteau of financial technology, is the term used to describe any technological innovation and automation regarding the financial sector. 

    Business models include online financial planning services, online lending and borrowing, online retail banking, online fundraising, online money transfers and payments, online investment management and more. 

    Wilcox believes the services can be complementary to the banking industry. 

    “There are as many business models as there are community banks. It all comes down to leadership. If I can bring on a product that helps me serve our customers more efficiently and robustly, then I am all about that,” he said. 

    Nicklason agreed. “As a bank you have to understand the trends that come with the changing world. Even as a small community bank with limited resources you have to invest or get out of the way and let someone else do it. I hope we don’t ever lose the human element of banking but FinTechs are changing everything and community banks will struggle to compete in that arena.”

    Nicklason believes this is one of the reasons why mergers and acquisitions are on the rise in the world of community banks. 

    “We have 4,000 less community banks than we did 15 years ago in this country. In Minnesota alone we lose three to four each quarter. Most of it is not due to closing, like it was during the recession, but due to merging. There are just as many branches but they belong to fewer banks.”

Magnetation assets sold at bankruptcy auction

June 13, 2019

By Beth Bily

    The fate of the assets of some of the former Magnetation operations were decided in Minnesota Bankruptcy Court on Monday.

    Magnetation was a company in rapid growth mode from 2008 to 2015, when plummeting iron ore prices forced the mining firm into bankruptcy. Its assets were acquired by ERP Iron Ore, led by Tom Clarke, in 2017. Not long after, however, those assets were once again in the hands of the bankruptcy court. 

    Several firms submitted bids to the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court – each with a different vision of what should become of the multi-million mining operation equipment and assets of the once-thriving company that reclaimed iron ore from existing tailings basins. Two companies – Prairie River Minerals and MJM Minerals were successful in their bids. The other two – Bison Minerals and Buckeye Minerals were not.

    According to court documents, the following is a breakdown of the bids submitted for court consideration:

    • Prairie River Minerals, LLC - is a locally based company. Stakeholders include former state Rep. Tom Anzelc, Ed Shaughnessy, Johann Grobler, Jim Swearingen and Scott Conley. Prairie River Minerals successfully bid $1.95 million for Plant 1, located near Keewatin, and the Jesse Load Out Facility. Prairie River intends to use a process known as ultra-dense media separation to extract hematite from old mining stockpiles. 

    • MJM Minerals – Submitted a successful bid of $1.7 million for Plant 2, located near Bovey/Taconite. Although little information was available about the company’s plan as of press time, it is believed MJM intends to scrap the plant.

    • Bison Minerals, LLC – With offices in Coleraine, Minn., Bison also planned to use established technology from South African firms to mine the tailings basins along the West Range. Bison submitted two alternative bids for Magnetation’s assets – a $4 million bid for Plants 1, 2 and the Jesse Load Out and a $21 million bid, which also includes Plant 4, located near Grand Rapids. The bid for all assets included an initial payment of $5 million with the $16 million balance to be paid off in a period of 48 months or less. Bison is led by former South African mining executive Hank Venter. 

    Although disqualified as a bidder, company spokesperson, Mike Andrews, said Bison has filed an objection to the court’s disqualification, claiming that the company did meet the court’s financial requirements as of June 7 when proposals were due.

    • Buckeye Minerals, LLC – Buckeye is a newly formed company legally organized in Delaware just last month. Buckeye offered $7 million for Plants 1, 2, and 4 as well as the Jesse Load Out facility. This company’s plan for the assets are unknown but they were also an unsuccessful bidder.

    The assets of Plant 4 in Grand Rapids remain in limbo as of Monday’s auction.  The sale of Plant 4 could prove more problematic than that of the other facilities due to the large number of mechanics liens on the facility. However, court documents filed June 10 suggest that another motion for sale could be filed on or before June 28.

    The outcomes of Monday’s auction will go to a bankruptcy court judge on Friday, June 19 for a final motion. Sales would take 30 days after that date to close.

Grand Rapids City Council rejects street improvement bids, reviews new developments

May 23, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    During public comments at last week’s Grand Rapids City Council meeting, Dale Anderson, director of parks and recreation, urged voting for Ryan Flood Memorial Park at www.timberwolves.com/ourcourts once a day from every device. The winner will receive a court upgrade worth $30,000. The voting closes Friday, May 24 at midnight.

    Mayor Dale Adams highlighted the Miner, Wilcox and Ives families for going above and beyond in supporting local initiatives: the Miner family for helping with remodel for the state Eagles convention and the Wilcox and Ives families for supporting the performing arts and Reif Center.

    Officials rejected all bids and authorized rebidding for street improvements in the city. The two bids received were approximately $4 million, about $750,000 more than the engineer’s estimate.

    The council authorized an architect/engineering agreement with ICS Consulting for a monthly retainer of $2,500 through November 2020 to start the process of IRA Civic Center west venue remodeling and safety repairs. The project includes emergency replacement of the west venue truss system, refrigeration and ADA improvements and will include such items as listening workshops, recommendations, an energy audit and report, a facility plan, funding options and public education on the project. A steering committee of stakeholders was also approved.

    The city council discussed and approved two plats within the city: the final plat for Great River Acres and the preliminary plat for Rebound Commercial Addition (formerly the location of the Sawmill Inn). The traffic needs for the Rebound addition, which will include a proposed hotel and mixed commercial uses, was discussed, including the responsibility for installing a street light if necessary. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has done a traffic study indicating no signal will be necessary. 

    In addition, the council approved a contingent purchase agreement for the Riverview School property with the Itasca County Housing and Redevelopment Authority for the Aurora Heights project, an affordable housing development with an apartment building and townhomes owned jointly by the HRA and Northland Counseling Center. The proposed price on the 7.2 acre site was set at $190,000 due to a reduction in buildable area to 4.0 acres and the need for soil corrections. 

    In other business, the city council:

    • Approved a resolution setting May as Arbor Month and Wednesday, May 22 as Arbor Day in the city. 

    • Approved claims of $1,141,096.85 for the period April 16 to May 6.

    • Accepted an agreement with the state for airport maintenance financial assistance from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2021.

    • Accepted the resignation of Frieda Hall from the Human Rights Commission.

    • Accepted the Grand Rapids Economic Development Authority 2018 annual report.

    • Approved change orders for about $23,000 for the Golf Course Road, Utilities Extension project at Great River Acres.

    • Authorized a timber sale on about 75 acres at the airport to meet FAA regulations. The sale will be administered by the Itasca County Land Department and take place on June 7 at 10 a.m. at the Cohasset Community Center.

    • Authorized soliciting quotes for four new city vehicles through the Minnesota Cooperative Purchasing Venture.

    • Approved payment of $5,537.35 to Cutsforth Inc. for easements on the Grand Rapids – Cohasset Connection Trail.

    • Accepted the low bid of $7,250 from ACCT Incorporated for asbestos abatement for a house scheduled for demolition.

    • Authorized hiring seasonal employees under the Public Works Department and updating the seasonal employee handbook.

    • Heard a report by Barbara Baird, director of finance covering the 2018 audit of the General Fund.

    • Renamed the Legion Baseball Field the “Bob Streetar Field at American Legion Park.” The name change was brought forward by alumni and supported by the Civic Center, Parks & Recreation Advisory Board. A ceremony will be held at the field June 21 during the American Legion Tournament.

    • Approved start of project work on the new elementary school sites before official closing on the properties.

    • Accepted the low bid from Hawkinson Construction for $69,931 for the Block 19 Alley improvements including removal and replacement of base and pavement and relocating private utilities underground. A Supplemental Letter Agreement for SEH Inc. for additional work scope during the project for $5,244.82 was approved.

Walz says he will change unusual policy IRRR used to hire Radinovich

April 27, 2019

By Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio

 

    Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has announced it will change state hiring policy after a former state DFL legislator was appointed to a six-figure job at the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation without going through standard hiring procedures. 

    Joe Radinovich, who ran unsuccessfully for the 8th Congressional District seat last year, was hired in March by the economic development agency based in Eveleth, as a senior manager at a salary of $100,000. 

    The story was first reported last week by The Timberjay newspaper.

    Documents show the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation asked for and received special permission from the Minnesota Management and Budget office to post the position for only 24 hours, rather than the required 7-day minimum. 

    In addition, an organizational chart produced five days before the job was posted showed Radinovich already installed in the position. Radinovich had previously worked as the department’s assistant commissioner before resigning to run for Congress. 

    “I am deeply troubled by the hiring process at the [Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation] that lacked transparency and fairness,” Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset, said in a statement Thursday. Layman sits on the agency’s governing board and is a former Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner. 

    “This kind of political maneuvering undermines public confidence in the agency and reinforces the worst impressions people hold — fairly or not — about the (department).”

    Over the years the agency has come under harsh criticism for giving millions of dollars in loans and grants to businesses that failed to provide the jobs they promised, and for not adequately overseeing the funding it provides.

    In response to The Timberjay’s story, the Walz administration announced it will institute an administration-wide policy requiring, rather than recommending, that all similar managerial positions be posted for at least 21 days. 

    “The governor’s office was not involved in any decision-making related to the expedited hiring process, and did not direct the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation or Minnesota Management and Budget to vary from ordinary hiring procedures,” Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann said in a statement Thursday.

    Tschann added that Walz is “committed to hiring the most qualified candidates and building an administration that reflects the diversity of Minnesota.” 

    The department is charged with diversifying the economy of the Iron Range beyond mining. It issues tens of millions of dollars every year in grants and loans intended to spur economic development in northeastern Minnesota.

    Listen to MPR at 100.5 FM in Duluth, 89.3 in the Ely area, 89.7 in the Grand Marais area, 107.3 in the Grand Rapids area, 88.3 in International Falls and 92.5 in the Hibbing-Virginia area.

33rd Annual Military Ball

April 11, 2019

By Don Basista

 

    The Deer River Veterans Club held its 33rd Annual Military Ball for Veterans and either their spouse or companion. The club provided the hors d’oeuvres and entertainment which was the Lady and the Tramps Band. 

    U.S. Air Force Veteran, Mike O’Claire, was the Master of Ceremonies. As each branch of the service was called, veterans would come to the center of the dance floor as the band played their branch of the service song, receiving standing applause. Some Veterans wore their old uniforms or a part of their uniform. 

    VFW Post 2720, and American Legion Post 122, Veteran Jim Peterson said “The Military Ball is to recognize our veterans each year with food, friendship, and music, and in the spirit of camaraderie, we intend to do this each coming year.”

Bigfork hospital downsizes nursing home beds, to explore nonprofit structure

March 16, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick 

 

    At the March 5 meeting of the Bigfork Valley Board of Directors, CEO Aaron Saude discussed options to downsize the Tamarack Lodge portion of the nursing home due to continued low occupancy. 

    Layaway, or closure, of seven beds and conversion of those rooms to private rooms was discussed. Beds in layaway may be reactivated for up to 10 years. The removal of beds will allow better reimbursement through PIP (performance-based) and QIPS (quality-based) incentive grants. It would also allow a one person staff reduction. In response to a question from Heidi Watson, the beds could not be used for respite or for younger patients.

    “It saves us some money and doesn’t impact operations,” Saude said. 

    The board voted to layaway seven beds; after the layaway the nursing home will have 20 beds in Aspen Circle, and 18 private rooms and 1 semiprivate room in Tamarack Lodge.

    Board Chair George Rounds requested volunteers for a working group on exploring a 501 (c) 3 structure. Members will include directors Diane Bakke, Heidi Watson, Marie Lovdahl, Larry Salmela, Joanne Krickhahn and Rounds. Community and staff members may be added. The first meeting takes place this week.

    Saude presented three options for facilitating strategic planning. Krickhahn pointed out that the proposals were not uniform in describing what would be provided and the background of the facilitator. It was decided to develop a proposal form and request submissions again.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved the financial report showing a loss of ($256,385) for the month ending Jan. 31, 2019.

    • Discussed decreased swing bed statistics and relative cost of care vs. transitional or temporary nursing home care. Swing beds are patients who receive care elsewhere and return to Bigfork Valley to continue recovery. Appropriate care for the patient is currently discussed between the hospital and nursing home.

    • Heard in the financial committee report that Dr. Daniel Baker and Jeff Temple had started as Bigfork Valley employees and Rainy Lake Medical Center had been contacted for possible cooperative services.

    • Was reminded to communicate with constituents.

    • Authorized employee appreciation awards to Leo Kern, Matt Niemala and Bridget Jurgansen.

    • Held a closed meeting on pending litigation.

Historical Society unveils early camps exhibit

March 07, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Big stone fireplaces, towering trees, new friends and canoeing through clear lakes. That was the summer experience of many in their teen years during the mid 1900s. 

    Some of those early camps were in northern Minnesota, and a dozen of them are featured in the new exhibit opened last week at the Itasca County Historical Society, “Early Camps in Itasca County.”

    The exhibits give a flavor of individual camps - boys camps, girls camps, music camps and more – with pictures, items and anecdotes. “Camp food” was offered as visitors browsed the exhibits including American Girl Camp, Bluewater Camp Fire Girls, Camp Allan, Camp Clef, Camp Hiawatha, Camp MarMac, Camp Mekahga, Camp Mishawaka, Camp Ruby, Camp Sherwood, Mayflower Camp and Sugar Lodge Deaf Camp. The exhibit is expected to be up for at least a year.

    The Itasca County Historical Society provides a museum, historical and genealogical research services and more. It is located at the corner of 201 North Pokegama Ave. in Grand Rapids. For information, call 218-326-6431.

Water clarity, city hall top Coleraine agenda

February 05, 2019

    The year’s first Coleraine City Council meeting was called to order by Mayor Pro Tem Ryan Stish and the first order of business was to conduct a swearing-in of our newly elected city officials. Dan Mandich recited the Oath of Office, as presented by City Clerk Briana Anderson, to be the next Mayor of Coleraine. Shortly thereafter, the two council members-elect Joseph Pollard and Thomas Sutherland took the oath.

    Street Commissioner Harry Bertram addressed the cloudy water issue and said they are doing everything possible to help the water clarity. He advised residents to run the tap 15 to 20 minutes and change the filter. Bertram said all of the water tests from St. Paul have come back showing the water is safe. Coleraine city water is tested every day and the city is obligated to alert residents if any problems with water quality should arise.

    Cavour Johnson reported on two projects he is working on and one is the city hall assessment where the overall condition is rated as fair. It will take $368,000 to fully restore the outside of the building. Johnson said the south east corner of city hall was not repaired adequately the first time. Several funding grants are available, and they also need the original construction drawings. A petition was circulated and residents who want to save city hall out numbered the nay-sayers by 50:1. Johnson noted grant writing is a very time consuming process and deadlines are in April.

    In a separate matter, Johnson identified three watersheds in town where storm drain water could be funneled into something or someplace other than Trout Lake. 

    Mary Drewes represented the Mount Itasca ski hill and said it was a virtual ant hill of activity with the Olympic Ski Jumping Tournament and the tubing hill was a big attraction. She thanked the press for their coverage of the ski jumping tournament.

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