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.

    Coleraine Police Chief Lonnie Mjolsness was busy on an investigation and could not attend the meeting. Chief Mjolsness, however, did release a police report that included the total number of calls listed at 1,287 for the year 2018. For the month of December, 112 calls were reported and the breakdown consisted of 57 calls in Coleraine with 15 in the annexed area and 6 handled by the school resource officer. Bovey had 28 calls for December and there were 10 mutual aid calls. The TLFD responded 10 times and one of those was a carbon monoxide alarm.

    Clerk Anderson released the list of appointments where Dan Mandich and Jeff Troumbley will be on the fire board, Joe Pollard will be the liaison for the Mt. Itasca ski hill and the members of the library board were listed as Jennifer Inglebret, Megan Hannah, Lila Dezelske, Kathy LaFond and Tom Patnaude. 

    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to appoint Councilor Joe Pollard to the Brownfield Coalition.

    • Voted to update the library bylaws that were set in 1909.

    • Agreed to hire Steve Campbell as the new city maintenance mechanic. 

    • Expressed the need for one new person on the Planning and Zoning Commission.

    • Voted to approve the annual audit.

    • Noted that the windrows left in front of driveways by the plow truck are the responsibility of the home owner.

    • Announced the new Fire Chief as Ken DeCoster.

    • Decided to expend $1,500 for legal work to divide the old fire hall property into three separate parcels.

    • Reported that the rink attendants are doing a good job.

    • Placed an order for one new fire truck.

    • Discussed the city’s right to switch insurance companies.

Effie City Council appoints new council member, plans work on skating rink

January 24, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Effie City Council met on Monday, Jan. 14 to organize, make 2019 appointments and consider pending issues.

    Mayor Greta Drewlow brought the meeting to order with two council members, Lil Longtine and Tom Lamont, and Clerk Carolyn Schmit present. The resignations of two council members, Joanne Krickhahn and Tim Grady, were accepted and new appointee Angela Walker was sworn in. Residents interested in applying for the remaining open council seat should contact the city clerk at cityofeffie@arvig.net or 218-743-6767.

    Appointments to area boards and city positions were made. Scenic Range NewsForum was designated the legal newspaper for the city. Lil Longtine was appointed acting mayor. John Licke will be city attorney.

    Up to $500 from the skating rink fund will be used for broomball equipment for youth and repairs to the rink so it can be flooded. The equipment will be stored in the locked warming house with the key available at Effie Country Service. A report will be submitted to the League of Minnesota Cities. Payment for city property missing from the warming house will be sought. 

    Two nuisance ordinance violations were discussed. A court date of Jan. 28 has been set for a suit against the city relating to one violation. A motion to release impounded vehicles with assurance of a privacy fence being erected by June was approved for the second. Attempts will be made to settle both issues out of court. 

    In other business:

    • December 2018 claims and payroll of $13,205.65 were approved.

    • The move of dedicated funds totaling $8,553.37 to a separate savings account was approved.

    • Purchase of a new sample collector for sewer system reports for $2,036 was approved.

    • Services rendered to the city by former council member Bob Cassibo were noted with thanks.

    • Meetings for 2019 will be the second Monday of the month at 6 p.m. in the Effie Community Center. The November meeting will be Nov. 18 due to Veterans Day. A possible change of time will be discussed at the next meeting.

    • Council members were asked to review local city ordinances for discussion at the next meeting.

    • The next meeting was set for Feb. 11 at 6 p.m. in the Effie Community Center.

Tinquist elected new county board chair at organizational meeting

January 17, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Itasca County Board met on Tuesday, Jan. 8 in an organizational meeting. Davin Tinquist, commissioner from District 1, was elected the new board chair and Ben DeNucci, commissioner from District 5 was elected 2019 vice-chair. All newly elected or re-elected officials took the oath of office administered by Judge Sarah L. McBroom.

    New fees were discussed and approved for the renovated Pavilion at Gunn Park. Considering several options, the board approved a fee of $75 for a half day and $150 for a full day for pavilion use, reservations can be made through contacts on the Itasca County Parks webpage. 

    In other business:

    • A list of various appointments to various committees, commissions and boards was approved. The board opted to not participate in the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus this year and the Arrowhead Procare Pool board has dissolved.

    • The Herald Review was selected as legal newspaper to carry the official proceedings, first run financial statements and delinquent tax notice. The Scenic Range NewsForum was selected for second run financial statements.

    • An agreement with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for updating the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan and commitment of at least $11,250 of matching funds for the update were approved. 

N-K students are achieving academically

November 22, 2018

    The ISD 319 School Board convened for it November meeting on Nov. 15 at the High School. High School principal Ranae Seykora was on hand to bring the board up to speed on activities at the high school. 

    Seykora said that she was implementing a new program at the high school to recognize students who were achieving A’s in their classes. Seykora said the high school partnered with the Nashwauk Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a pizza party for those students achieving four or more A’s. Seykora said there are 125 students out of 284 who are receiving four or more A’s in their classes.

    Seykora next broadened her perspective on grades at Nashwauk-Keewatin. She noted that 58 out of a total of 82 juniors and seniors were taking college level classes. She added that ACT scores improved at the high school in every area tested including math, science, reading and, English.

    Superintendent Matt Grose continued discussion about college-level classes in high school. Grose said that he thought there were several advantages to this program. 

    One advantage, said Grose, is that kids are exposed to a rigorous curriculum. Another advantage he cited is that kids get to participate in and get a college experience in a much less threatening environment. 

    “Some of our students, they might be the first ones in their family that get to go to college or it might not be part of their family culture,” he said. 

    Grose also mentioned the economic benefit of the program, pointing out that if the 58 students Seykora cited each took 3 credits at $300 per credit, there would be a savings of over $50,000 in tuition for area families. 

    The superintendent concluded his remarks by saying; “It reinforces the idea that this is an academic institution, and we are scholars around here. I think that is something we want our kids to be thinking about.

We’re scholars. We’re smart. We do whatever we want.” 

    Band Director Chad Snider reported that more than 400 people attended a pancake fundraiser event. Previously, Snider had received approval from the Board to purchase a concert shell at an estimated cost of about $12,000. Snider said that towards the end of the pancake breakfast, he was approached by a person who wanted to know how much money he had saved for the shell. Snider told the individual he had about $3,000 saved. The person, who wishes to remain anonymous, volunteered to pick up the remaining $9,500. Upon hearing this news, Snider said that his students were excited and asked him what they can do to say “Thank You.” Snider said that he had purchased numerous thank you cards that the students will be signing. He added that a song would be dedicated to this and other donors at the band’s first concert on Dec. 12.

    In other business, the board:

    • Accepted and certified the results of the Nov. 6 election.

NRRI: Transforming the future of plastic

November 01, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

Plastics have revolutionized the world, and now we are drowning in it. In an effort to take a step back from petroleum dependence and find biodegradable plastic options, scientists at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) are endeavoring to make plastic from trees.

The conventional approach to plastic relies on petroleum, a tie to the chemical industry and fossil fuels that has researchers searching for greener alternatives.

Earlier this year the University of Minnesota Duluth’s NRRI received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a project called Integrated Biorefinery Optimization. For the NRRI, that boils down to turning tree constituents into a renewable bio-plastic. 

Analogous to a petroleum refinery, a biorefinery converts biomass, like trees, into multiple products like fuels, heat and value-added chemicals. This USDA project has the stated objective of reducing biorefinery costs in order to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Lignin is a structural material in trees that makes up about 30 percent of woody plant mass. An undervalued waste product in biorefineries that make ethanol from tree pulp, scientists all over the world have been trying to find ways to get this intriguing material to meet plastic specifications.

NRRI’s project has several collaborative partners and, if successful, could have great economic benefits for Minnesota and Wisconsin’s forestry industry.

For the last 20 years, companies around the globe have been looking for ways to turn cellulose into fuel or other useful chemicals, a process that requires the removal of all the other components, like lignin. The paper industry uses wood pulp, removing the lignin as well. That leaves a lot of lignin going to waste.

“What has eluded a lot of people is finding a way to remove lignin that leaves something useful,”said NRRI’s Initiative Director for the Wood Products and Bioeconomy group, Eric Singsaas. “We took a different approach.”

Ten years ago while working at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point Singsaas began using an organic solvent called butanol to remove lignin from cellulose, resulting in several successful patents.

Step one is removing lignin from trees using the butanol method Singsaas helped develop.

Project partner Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has created a durable bioplastic they call ABL for acrylonitrile-butadiene-lignin. Using 50 percent renewable content, ABL is recyclable and is intended to compete against the petroleum product currently in place, which is called ABS.

An extrudable and moldable thermoplastic, ABS can be found in a million every day items, from car bumpers, to luggage, composite decking and toys. Its major downside is that ABS is made from petroleum-derived chemicals.

Step two: Use ORNL’s technology to create ABL plastic from lignin sourced with NRRI’s patented solvent process.

“The goal of the project is to develop something equal to or better than ABS that uses lignin in the form of a composite siding or decking product,” Singsaas said.

The practical side of the USDA project is in the hands of Attis Innovations who will operationalize the manufacturing of ABL for market.

Vice President of Marketing for Attis Innovations division, Chris Kennedy noted Attis is a commercialization partner for the project and will modify the basic technology already developed by other partners to upscale separation of lignin from biomass and manufacture ABL.

“Our role is to take that process and modify it to make it capable for commercial scale proportions, moving from the two tons of biomass processing a day that AST is currently capable of, to scale that up to processing 200 biomass tons daily,” said Kennedy.

Attis Innovations has its corporate headquarters in Georgia, but will be working in Wausau, Wis. as a partner on the USDA grant to expand their pilot facilities.

Beyond the USDA project, the NRRI group is continuing to pursue development of a biodegradable lignin product. Singhaas said biodegradability is a desired feature that goes beyond plastic forks. 

“If you use a petroleum based product in applications for plastic mulch landscaping or agriculture you have to go in and remove it, but if you can use lignin to make plastic mulch that would degrade in two or three years you could leave it in place,” Singsaas said.

The technical challenge requiring a lot of chemistry know-how is how to get durability, heat resistance, tensile strength and biodegradability into that product. 

Singhaas has already piloted a plastic fork project from lignin, but the prototype wouldn’t heft your potato salad without losing a few prongs, and a lignin spoon will melt when stirring coffee.

“What keeps me up at night is how to get a natural product to have all the properties of single-use packaging that will displace all the plastics polluting our lakes and oceans,” Singsaas said.

Traditional markets for forest products in both Minnesota and Wisconsin have struggled in recent years. With the shrinking of demand from the paper and OSB industries due to international competition, Singsaas noted this development could open up new markets to the forest industry previously not accessible.

Singhaas said Minnesota had historically shipped a great deal of unprocessed logs out of the state. Creating the template for a bioplastic industry from growing trees to manufacturing a finished product is a chance for the state to increase the economic value of forestry products by retaining production in-state for job creation, he said.

Preliminary numbers predict the use of lignin over petroleum to make plastics could result in a 70 percent savings in greenhouse gas reductions.

Arbitrator says firing was justified, former deputy plans appeal

September 20, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

In an arbitration decision released last week, Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams was found to have “just cause” for termination of 16-year veteran deputy Bryan Johnson. Both men are vying for the position of county sheriff in this year’s general election.

 

Stemming from two instances of inaccurate time card entries in 2017 totaling 12 hours, Johnson was put on paid leave while a Beltrami investigator looked into the matter. He was later terminated. Johnson asserted that disciplinary actions taken against him were retribution for his involvement in an internal whistleblower case and for his 2014 election run against Williams. The county and Williams, however, countered that the actions against Johnson were unrelated to the 2014 election.

 

Appointed arbitrator James Laumeyer addressed three areas of concern in his assessment of the case: whether the mandated paid leave was a violation of the union collective bargaining agreement; the question of whether the time card entries were intentional theft; and if the county was justified in its termination of Johnson.

 

Laumeyer wrote in his findings that the paid leave of absence was not disciplinary, as contended by Johnson’s union, but rather accepted practice during an investigation. He went on to say that the erroneous timecard entries were not intentional despite county’s claim that they were an attempt to commit theft or fraud.

 

Finding that Williams had just cause for the termination, Laumeyer concluded that Johnson “did display a pattern of deceit and dishonesty in his efforts to “cover” up his erroneous entries, characteristic of a “web of deceit.”

 

Williams said little on the matter, but appeared satisfied with the arbitrator’s conclusions. "An independent arbitrator heard all the evidence and made a thorough and well-reasoned decision," Williams stated.

 

In a phone call Johnson said that his union attorney is requesting an appeal of the hearing based on alleged “egregious errors” by the arbitrator. Johnson responded in writing with his reaction to the arbitration findings.

 

“I unequivocally deny any and all assertions that I was untruthful in the matter. I have never deviated from the truth,” Johnson stated. “It also should be noted I challenged the sheriff in the 2014 election and I am also a witness against him in an ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, filed by yet another sheriff’s office employee.”

 

Johnson says he will continue his campaign seeking election as the Itasca County sheriff.

 

Union staff attorney for AFSCME council 65 Theresa Joppa, who handled Johnson’s case, noted that under the Uniform Arbitration Act in Minnesota normally an appeal of an arbitration is not an option, however, in this case she says that she feels that the arbitrator made technical errors in the way he conducted the hearings.

 

“I have serious concerns that he did not allow me to present grievance testimony, Johnson should be allowed to respond to each accusation and the arbitrator did not allow that. He made egregious errors,” Joppa said.

 

Joppa has formally requested that AFSCME file an appeal. If the union agrees a district court judge would review the request for a rehearing of the case with a different arbitrator.

 

“It’s a mischaracterization of Bryan to say these things are lies that can’t be remembered completely clearly at all times, Bryan is being slandered and I think we should all ask ourselves what’s the motivation for the sheriff to have Johnson fired from the department,” said Joppa.

Nyhus named champ in 2nd Annual Kossak Kohlrabi contest

September 13, 2018

    A lively bunch of 15 or more gathered on Thursday morning, Sept. 6, in Keewatin for the Second Annual Kossak Kohlrabi weigh-off.

    The largest kohlrabi in 2017 was 24 lbs., 14 oz. This year, Richard Nyhus was the winner at 22 lbs., 14 oz. Blake Liend brought home the honors of “Kohlrabi Champ in Training” at 14 oz.

    After much laughter, it was decided there will be another competition in 2019.

Iron Range Engineering to launch Bell Program

September 06, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    The Iron Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) has awarded $5 million to the Northeast Higher Education District to launch a hybrid version of its Iron Range Engineering called the IRE Bell Program.

    Funding will come from the Douglas J. Johnson Economic Development Fund and will be dispersed over four years.

    Incoming students to the new engineering program will spend an intensive six months in the region, then return home for a two-year paid cooperative placement. They will continue online classes throughout their co-op, returning to the school for a one week exam period each year.

    According to Bill Maki, president of the Northeast Higher Education District, building the co-op experience into this educational model is a novel approach.

    “We don’t believe anyone else is using the co-op model where community college students are working in the engineering industry while going to school. We’re taking proven successful practices from the IRE and building on it,” said Maki.

    IRE was recently recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as ranking in the top five in the world for its innovative approach to teaching engineering.

    At full capacity of 75 students, the program is projected to bring $8 million in tuition into the region, and add 45 new staff jobs. The first cohort will be about 30 students with 15 new staff being hired immediately, with the Bell Program launching in July of 2019. Recruitment has already started, with half of the first year’s students already signed on.

    IRE is located in Virginia on the Mesabi Range College campus and collaborates with Minnesota State University - Mankato. The IRE Bell Program graduate will have a four-year degree from MSU Mankato.

    Most of the 150 graduates of the decade-old IRE program are from, and work in the region. Maki says that IRE Bell will expand to a national audience as a startup, while keeping the traditional IRE program intact.

    The pilot cohort will be located at Giant’s Ridge for much of their training and will use the Virginia campus facilities as well. During their co-op phase of the experience, students will take online courses with professors in Virginia. The program culminates in a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering, a unique degree with a broader curriculum rooted in a project -based model.

    “We believe it’s a strong model because students are getting real world experience immediately and earning money to reduce the cost of education,” Maki said.

    A Bell Experience pilot with 38 students took place this May at Giant’s Ridge. It drew people from 10 different states to give them a sense of the IRE Bell program and evaluate the level of their interest.

    Maki says that NHED has been working on development of IRE Bell since 2016, and $345,000 has already been invested looking at curriculum with national and internal experts in engineering. An additional $245,000 was spent in 2018 to study the market and gather input from community college faculty and students.

    Ron Ulseth, director of academics and instructor at Itasca Community College in Virginia, says that taking the engineering project to the next level will have a great impact.

    In the traditional IRE model, students do complete a project, but it typically comprises about 20 percent of their learning experience. Ulseth says that a greater focus on project learning is the key difference of the Bell Program, something that he says impacts sustained learning as well as motivation to learn.

    “When you learn an engineering principle and then use it on a project, those memories are much more vivid and last long after the test, and in hands-on learning we see that students are much more motivated to engage in learning what they will use in real life,” Ulseth stated.

    Ulseth sees professional development during the course of the program as a huge boost to employability for graduates.

    “Working on teams and in the industry is going to help them develop a set of professional skills for overcoming conflict and entering the professional practice as a graduate,” said Ulseth.

Tourism initiative to encourage visitors to ‘live like a local’

August 23, 2018

By Beth Bily

 

    A soon-to-be launched initiative of Visit Grand Rapids hopes to capitalize on one of the most recent trends in tourism – doing what the locals do.

    The initiative is the brainchild of Visit Grand Rapids Executive Director Megan Christianson. She says the idea came to her following a trip to a U.S. travel show, where a similar approach was presented by a tiny town in New Mexico.

    Visitors today, and particularly millennials, are looking for a unique vacation experience. They want to see the amenities and the way of life that a particular place has to offer. To that end, Christianson is planning and developing 360-degree videos which will showcase a few local treasures in Grand Rapids and Itasca County. The videos will focus on the area’s “hidden gems” that aren’t always well-known to out-of-town visitors. 

    The videos will tell the stories of nine locals and hit on the themes of the “live-work-play” opportunities here. Some of the topics touched upon will include bike riding on local trails, amenities found at the local YMCA and relay the Native American story. 

    One highlight she points to with particular fondness is the story of the Green Heron Bed and Breakfast, located on Pokegama Lake. Here, she said, the owners use locally produced products such as wild rice and maple syrup to provide guest meals. “People will hear that story and want to stay there,” Christianson told Itasca County Commissioners during an update on the project at a county board meeting this summer.

    Christianson plans to get the word out on these hidden gems through development of a web landing page. Funding for the project comes from $10,000 set aside by Visit Grand Rapids, which is 90 percent funded through locally generated hospitality taxes, as well as a $10,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board tourism fund.

    The importance of drawing more visitors to town is reflected by the numbers. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar annual industry in Minnesota, generating $15 billion in gross sales annually and approximately $41 million per day, according to figures from Explore Minnesota. The industry as a whole generates 265,000 full and part time jobs and accounts for 11 percent of private sector in employment in the state. In Itasca County, lodging and hospitality account for about $74.5 million in annual spending, generate $4.8 million in state sales tax and 1,573 positions in private sector employment.

    It’s also an industry that’s experienced solid growth, with leisure and hospitality-based businesses growing by 50 percent from 2004 to 2016, according to state figures.

    While the goal of the initiative is to draw more tourists to the region, Christianson also hopes that will entice viewers to want to live and work in the area as well – or perhaps even relocate a business here. 

    While no one expects a video to be the basis for a business or personal relocation, they can offer an initial glimpse of an area, its people and its way of life. 

    Those who relocate here “had to be introduced to this area somehow and a lot of it is through visitation or vacation,” Christianson said.

    Itasca Economic Development Corp. President Mark Zimmerman agreed that the project has the potential to portray the area in a positive light. “We certainly hope testimonials on why people like to live here can increase visitors to our area and help with workforce attraction for our local businesses.”

    The Live Like a Local initiative is currently in the development stage, with plans in place to market the project this fall. Christianson noted that October through December is a critical time for getting the word out – that’s when travelers are likely to make their plans for the following year.

Tax cases, child protection, county jail issue weigh on county budget planning

August 15, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    Facing a number of serious impacts, Itasca County is beginning its 2019 budget planning, with department heads in the process of putting together their budget requests for next year.

    The Blandin tax court ruling, the Enbridge tax court case, and the need for a new jail are just some of the factors impacting the board’s decisions.

    While the budget for next year is still in the early planning stages, Itasca County Board Chair, Leo Trunt, says that many challenges are facing the board.

    He expects that the Health and Human Services department will be asking for additional staff, especially for child protection.

    “One of the major things affecting the county is what I call ‘societal ills’, like opioid abuse and the pressures that creates for out of home placements for children, as well as an increase in costs from related crimes and jail sentences,” Trunt said.

    “We can’t just levy our way out of this, we have to figure out ways to hold down costs and realign our resources,” Trunt stated.

    Trunt admits that he is worried about the tax court issues, and is concerned that the way that the Blandin tax case was settled will negatively affect private homeowners by shifting a greater tax burden onto property taxes.

    “We are also facing a problem with the Enbridge pipeline taking us to tax court with the state’s formula for tax appraisals increasing taxes dramatically. It could require a massive payback in the millions, as well as losing property tax dollars going forward,” Trunt stated.

    He says that the county is appealing to the state to own its share of the back taxes for changing the formula, and is hoping the current Supreme Court case will come down in the county’s favor.

    Another financial consideration on the horizon is the mandate for a new jail, with a plan required by the state to be in place by 2021. Currently a jail study committee is looking at the most cost effective plan for a new jail, which could include remodeling the existing structure, or the construction of a new building.

    Brett Skyles, Itasca County administrator, says that in a recent routine inspection the Minnesota Department of Corrections made the decision to require Itasca County to do something to improve the outdated jail facilities.

    With one of the oldest jails in the state, Skyles says that the building no longer met current specifications for health and safety.

    “We’ve been doing our best with the building we have, but the DOC finally said ‘You’ve done all you can do,’ and put us on notice to have an approved plan in place in three years,” said Skyles.

    Meanwhile, in terms of opioid addiction prevention, and the massive financial impact to Itasca County, Skyles says some solid findings have come out of committee meetings on that issue.

    “We’re finding out that there are some good programs going on now in prevention with good statistics of success, but we have to figure out how to fund more of those expensive interventions without recreating the wheel,” Skyles stated.

    Budget planning meetings are scheduled for Sept. 5 and 7, with a proposed levy expected to be released once those meetings are completed.

Three vying for county attorney job

August 08, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

    Three candidates are vying for the Itasca County attorney job, Matti Adam, John Dimich, and Ellen Tholen. In a race that has the incumbent, Jack Muhar, not pursuing re-election the upcoming primary election on Aug. 14 will narrow the field to two.

    Each candidate was asked two questions: How are they best qualified to be Itasca County attorney?, and What changes, or new direction would they bring to the Itasca County attorney’s office?

 

Matti Adam

    Adam is currently the assistant county attorney, and she believes that helps make her the best candidate to become county attorney. Proud of her contributions to an office that has a very high performing rate from their child support enforcement revenue stream, Adam says she finds it very rewarding to be a strong advocate for people who need it. She is currently on unpaid leave from her position per county policy that requires a county employee running for a county office to take a leave.

    “My willingness to take unpaid leave should demonstrate to voters how dedicated I am to the work of the office and moving it forward. I understand the obligations of the office, and since 2014 have handled every type of civil and criminal case, as well as giving general legal advice to 16 different county departments,” Adam said.

    The new direction that Adam intends to bring to the county attorney office is that of greater efficiency.

    “Overall, the office already does a good job, but we need to continue to work on being more efficient, look at implementing technology efficiencies when we can and understand that the world is changing to an internet age with the way evidence is coming in, like data from phones. We need to stay on top of trends with technology in evidence for investigations and how we share that in court,” Adam said.

    Building inter-agency relationships and increasing communication opportunities are also ways that Adam wants to make a difference.

    “The better relationship my office has with the county departments, the better able we will be to meet their needs. I want to run an open office for people to be able to stop in and visit or call,” Adam said. “Ultimately my goal is to provide high quality advice and efficient services to the residents of the county that promotes public safety.”

 

John Dimich

    Dimich says he is best qualified because of his 40-plus years of experience as an attorney, extensive knowledge of local governments, and his role as previous Itasca county attorney from 1981 to 1986. He has also served as the city prosecutor for Grand Rapids, LaPrairie, Taconite, and Nashwauk, and is the city attorney for Coleraine, Bovey, Keewatin, and Bigfork.

    “I’m running because I have the experience. I’ve been the Itasca County attorney for five plus years and have the knowledge of the local governments,” Dimich said.

    Cutting costs to a rapidly expanding county attorney budget is at the top of Dimich’s list for change.

    “In the last four years the county attorney’s budget has grown by $368,000, and that’s not inflation, it’s from adding attorneys and staff. I would reduce the size of the office, in part by going to court myself and handling my share of cases and allocating cases to shift where growth is. I am not going to believe that we need to keep adding attorneys where every statistic tells us that our county is getting older and crimes are not going up,”

Dimich said.

    Other costs that Dimich says he will manage better include the way bail is set, shortening county jail stays by toughening up on probation violations, and initial sentencing.

    Too often, Dimich says, bail is set too high and offenders are then forced to do their time in jail, at greater cost to the county. He also believes that offenders that have repeated probation violations should have their cases resolved more rapidly by sending them to execute their sentences in state prisons, rather than being given the chance to spend time in the county jail at a higher local cost.

    “If we take the position that probation isn’t working for some people at this level then their sentences should be executed, let’s get tougher on probation violations,” Dimich stated.

    Dimich says that he believes the office needs general efficiency, better communication with the public and a quicker response to questions from individuals and agencies.

    “The bottom line is what I want to bring is a change in attitude and direction that is different from the way things have been done for the last 28 years,” Dimich stated.

 

Ellen Tholen

    Tholen says she is best qualified to be the future county attorney due to her bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, along with 29 years practicing law in various areas representing hundreds of clients. She also cites her experience as a veteran of the U.S. Army where she served in the military police office as being critical experience for this job.

    “What sets me apart from the other candidates is that I’ve worked with law enforcement investigating crimes and know what is necessary from that side to then prosecuting a crime, I have a great understanding of the system with my degree in criminal justice,” Tholen stated.

    Taking the county attorney’s office into a new direction through a change in ideology is Tholen’s plan. Using a restorative justice approach, she says that the alternative approach holds the non-violent offender accountable and focuses on restitution to the victim.

    “One of the biggest things I want to change is the traditional punitive system in place that is not working to eliminate or deter non-violent crime,” Tholen said.

    Tholen says that while public safety is best served through punitive measures and incarceration for violent crimes and drug dealers, many adult offenders and most juveniles would be less likely to re-offend through restorative justice. She gives the example of a juvenile who steals liquor from a relative’s store, when caught is charged with underage drinking and felony burglary. With a felony they will be barred from financial aid for college and many job opportunities.

    “We need to change the culture of punitive mentality and incarceration that just perpetuates recidivism, and look at what is really best for keeping them from re-offending,” said Tholen.

    Another new direction Tholen plans includes pursuing sexual assault crimes more diligently. She believes that if a victim is willing to testify that the county should prosecute the case.

    “Reaching out to the community and strengthening ties to other agencies can create a change to intervene with a different approach that will reduce the likelihood of re-offending. There is so much power as a county prosecutor to reduce mass incarceration by determining when you decide to charge,” Tholen said.

Bankruptcy court sides with Cliffs in land dispute

July 26, 2018

BusinessNorth Report

 

    A federal bankruptcy court on Monday sided with Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. in a dispute over land that once was set aside to feed a proposed Essar Steel Minnesota LLC (ESML) taconite and pig iron processing plant near Nashwauk.

    The parcels were owned or leased by Glacier Park Iron Ore Properties LLC (GPIOP) and became entangled in ESML’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy. ESML’s successor company, Mesabi Metallics LLC, was acquired in a bankruptcy auction by Chippewa Capital Partners, which is led by entrepreneur Tom Clarke. When Chippewa missed a bankruptcy court financing deadline last October, Cliffs struck a deal to obtain the land from GPIOP, leaving Chippewa with a non-contiguous group of parcels controlled by the state of Minnesota. Mesabi Metallics sued Cliffs with hopes to reclaim the GPIOP holdings.

    In his ruling, Judge Brendan Shannon of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware determined Mesabi Metallics LLC’s lease rights terminated on Oct. 31, 2017, when it failed to exit bankruptcy as required. 

    The acquired land is approximately 553 acres in size. The leased acreage is approximately 3,215 acres, Cliffs said. 

    Chippewa Capital Partners had hoped to refurbish what remains of the ESML plant. Despite the Cliffs land acquisition, Clarke has said he could move the project forward with only the state leases, which were awarded to Chippewa earlier this month.

    Since then, however, ERP Iron Ore, which is affiliated with Chippewa, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on the former Magnetation holdings on the West Range. Despite an apparent desire to restructure ERP, Clarke has told the Duluth News Tribune that ERP intends to shutter the former Magnetation holdings. But Itasca County, a significant creditor, has not received any formal notification from Clarke regarding his intentions. A meeting between county officials and ERP executives has been scheduled for this week.

NK mulls new single school, community facility

July 19, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    Nashwauk-Keewatin School District is moving forward with developing plans for a new facility, and is looking to area city councils for collaboration.

    Superintendent Matt Grose says that extensive discussions have been ongoing with the school board about the best way to move forward with needed upgrades to the existing Nashwauk-Keewatin facilities.

    “The reality is that doing nothing is a choice, but that means at some point our choice gets taken away from us,” said Grose, referring to the ongoing deterioration of the districts’ buildings, and the possibility that the schools could ultimately face closure if not upgraded.

    The two school buildings serving Nashwauk-Keewatin students are more than 100 years old, and are two of the oldest operational school buildings in Minnesota.

    A building audit completed last year recommended infrastructure upgrades that would improve environmental safety for about the next 25 years, including electric, plumbing and roofing.

    But even a temporary fix, such as the audit suggested, would be extremely costly. Estimated to take between $18 million and $22 million to make the buildings functional for another quarter century, Grose says no one recognizes that option as a good one.

    “We have more projects to complete than facility funds to pay for them, and ongoing maintenance costs will become an issue,” Grose stated.

    Prioritizing student safety, the upgrades would bring environmental safety concerns into compliance. However, they would not address what Grose refers to as educational purpose. Elementary rooms are smaller than standard state recommendations, and some of them are awkwardly shaped, inhibiting good classroom flow.

    “These existing buildings were designed at a time when the educational purpose was not the same, and remediating that in the current buildings would come at an incredible cost,” Grose said.

    Moving to a consolidated site may be the most cost efficient and overall effective possibility, according to Grose.

    “The board wants us to explore finding a partner or partners to help with sharing costs for a new facility, with the ultimate goal of improving educational programming at the same time,” Grose stated.

    Possible partners include the municipal government entities of Keewatin and Nashwauk.

    “We are trying to determine what type of partnership will give the best opportunity to build new buildings, and improve the educational environment,” said Grose.

    Other partnership opportunities being explored include creative and innovative ideas like partnering with the cities to have shop classes participate in maintaining their vehicle fleet.

    “In true collaboration everybody has to be willing to take on uncomfortable change and do things differently, and we are hoping that people are going to be receptive to significant change,” Grose stated.

    Recognizing that a new pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade building that would house the approximately 600 Nashwauk-Keewatin students would cost more than the district could afford, Grose says that collaboration is critical for the district to survive.

    “Running a referendum that large would be unrealistic for our community, so we’re going to need some support from other partners to make it happen,” said Grose.

    In a community survey of 436 residents last year the possibility of some form of tax increase to improve the educational facilities was supported by 72 percent of the respondents.

    Craig Menozzi graduated from Nashwauk-Keewatin in 1974 and has recently returned to live in the area following his retirement from a 37-year career in education. Menozzi is working with Grose and the school district to develop plans for a new facility.

    Menozzi says that a preliminary architecture’s sketch of a concept diagram shows what one iteration of a new facility might look like. “The facility could include the school’s educational needs, and also be a civic and public safety center.”

    Meetings with both city councils have occurred, and Menozzi says that the idea of working together on a shared facility has been well-received.

    In addition to the concept of combining the two schools, creating community meeting and event space and housing all the two cities offices under one roof also are being discussed.

    “The survey showed that people really want a place where they can meet and exercise, and we are really excited about this as a unique concept for rural America where cities and schools collaborate to share resources,” said Menozzi.

    The big question, Menozzi says, is how to pay for such an expensive plan. That leaves finding a partner or partners to share costs a top priority. A more in depth look at what community members want is being planned. Officials hope to define a specific direction within the year.

Public employee insurance pool dissolved; small cities, county face financial fallout

July 12, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    Effective July 1 the Arrowhead Procare Pool, the consortium that provides health insurance for many public employees in the area, was dissolved and its board disbanded.

    Made up of over 30 entities, and covering over 900 employes, the discontinuation of Procare has come as a surprise to some.

    “It came so fast, how could we possibly be prepared?” said Bill King, mayor of Keewatin, whose employees were covered under Procare. King says that the city was first notified of the impending dissolution just a couple months ago.

    Affecting many small towns, the ultimate financial impact is still unclear. With Itasca County covering shortages, several small communities are left owing money to the county.

    In years past, King had served on the Procare board, and he reflected that there had always been a good surplus of funds, the loss of which he is struggling to understand.

    While King says that employees will continue to receive similar coverage through the Northeast Service Cooperative, he anticipates that both the city and employees will see unfortunate financial fallout.

    NESC will carry Keewatin employees for six months at higher premiums with a similar plan. After that negotiations will be entered, and King expects that while premiums will be similar to the past, a higher deductible will be a hidden cost.

    “It’s going to be a different kind of plan with NESC after six months, more of a health savings account, and the city will have to negotiate this with our employees in the next few months,” stated King.

    Meanwhile, King is concerned about the money Keewatin already owes to Itasca County for covering shortages on past claims, and expects that claims filed before the ending June 30 deadline are yet to strike a tough blow to the city’s budget.

    Arrowhead Procare began in 1987 when a group of government entities in the area pooled their resources to purchase health insurance for their employees. A consortium of a small group of public employers, this method of insurance works by employee-paid premiums being used to purchase fully insured plans from Blue Cross Blue Shield, with the ability to leverage lower premiums by adding groups. 

    In 2008, Procare discontinued purchasing insurance from a third-party provider and created a self-funded pool for health, dental and life insurance. In a self-funded pool contributions are pooled and then used to pay claims.

    Itasca County auditor/treasurer Jeff Walker says the events leading up to the dissolution of Procare remain somewhat of a mystery.

    Walker says that the move to self-insure was motivated by outrageous cost increases. And for a time, Walker says the self-insure method was working well.

    “We had established a pretty good reserve of $3 to $4 million, and everything was going along fine,” Walker stated. 

    However, according to Walker, that dynamic began to shift as costs of claims recently began to outstrip monies going into the reserves.

    “During the last couple of years reserves began to decline, in other words, our claims were out-doing our premium dollars. We were spending more than we were taking in,” Walker said.

    In the last six to seven months a rapid decline in Procare’s reserves resulted in them being completed exhausted by this spring.

    Walker says that since the group is not allowed to view each individual claim, they are not able to put their finger on what exactly happened, but the end result is clear: there was no money left to pay claims and keep the collaboration going.

    Itasca County has also made the decision to turn to NESC for continuation of health insurance, where Walker says that there will be no loss of benefits, and no longer any direct exposure for the county.

    “Under the Arrowhead Procare system if a claim was turned in, we would pay it directly from the Procare pool reserves, and we were collecting about $1 million in premiums a month and paying out $1.3 million in claims,” Walker stated.

    With Itasca County making up about 75 percent of the pool, Walker says the county suffered a direct liability with the imbalance.

    “There was no distinguishing between claims for each entity, and it became up to us to keep the pool viable,” Walker said.

    Walker says that claims still coming in will continue to be paid until the county secures coverage.

Iron Range grocers battle Dollar Store impact

July 05, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Al Zupancich’s grandfather opened a grocery store in Ely in the early 1900s. Now, three, four and five generations later, the family is still in the grocery business, running six neighborhood grocery markets across the Iron Range. 

    There was a time when residents had a choice of up to four or five groceries and a co-op in every town, he said - each store catering to a different religious or ethnic culture and taste. 

    Now that choice is gone, and the remaining neighborhood groceries are facing a new threat to survival: corporate America.

    Larger markets offer groceries in corporate big box retail stores. But now a similar business model has come to small town rural America. It’s called the dollar store. And it has come suddenly. 

    “I’ve seen a lot of changes through the years,” said Mike Kocian, who followed his father in the grocery business in Bigfork. “But I’ve never seen things change as fast as they have in recent years.”

    One rapidly growing presence on the Range is Dollar General, a $22 billion company based in Tennessee. It has about 14,000 stores nationwide, making it the largest “small box” discount retailer in the country. Today it has 17 stores within 100 miles of Virginia, including smaller markets like Aurora, Hoyt Lakes, Floodwood and Ely. And more are in the planning stages.

    The relatively small 9,000 sq. ft. stores carry many of the same items as the small grocery, being especially competitive with pop, chips, soap, paper products and milk, according to Scott Magoon of Blackduck Family Foods. 

    Just entering its first summer market with a Dollar General store in town that opened last October, Blackduck grocery sales have already trended lower by 5-10 percent, Magoon said, and that number is similar for Zup’s, with stores in Ely, Babbitt, Tower, Silver Bay and Cook. Zup’s in Aurora closed when two nearby Dollar General stores were built. 

    Renee Johnson, owner of The Grocery Store in Floodwood, said her loss in annual sales was $143,000 after the Dollar General store was built there in 2016. She also owned a hardware store in town, but closed that and combined inventory with the grocery as a result of the new competition.

 

    In most small markets there is a limited economic pie. When a new store is built, it takes a sizable piece of that market share. “Anything purchased from a dollar store is one less item you’re going to sell, be it pop, bacon or whatever,” explained Jim Zupancich, Jr. of the Ely Zup’s grocery. 

    So how can small groceries be sure they have enough of the pie to survive?

    Many small groceries have a secret weapon along the outside walls of the store: meat, deli and fresh produce. The dollar store may affect sales in the center of the store; the Charmin and the Miracle Whip, said Al Zupancich, who owns Eveleth Country Foods. Neighborhood grocers, however, often have a meat cutter on staff, offer homemade and/or ethnic specialties, and even grind their own beef. 

    Those specialties are significant. 

    In Eveleth, for instance, the meat and deli departments are responsible for 60 percent of the store’s volume. 

    How to face the challenge of the dollar store model is not just a local issue. Concentrating on what separates the small grocery from a dollar store and then marketing that advantage is advice that the Rural Grocery Initiative in Manhattan, Kan., shares with its small groceries. That includes a message that full service groceries have more fresh fruits, fresh meat and dairy products, and more healthy foods, said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Involvement at Kansas State University, which houses the grocery initiative. 

    Other distinctions can be promoted through customer service, since the dollar store operates on a very lean labor model, and keeping the store clean and bright, because discount stores can appear a little chaotic. Procter urges carryout and even delivery if possible. 

    The ultimate goal is to be the store that the customer chooses to walk into. One way to influence that choice is to become part of the fabric of the community.

    The neighborhood store can integrate into its community by doing a variety of things like sponsoring a softball team or donating paper plates and cups for a baseball tourney, Procter said. Independent stores can be flexible in terms of amount and type of donations, while corporate stores are limited by company policy. 

    “We give to every nonprofit whenever we can,” said Jim Zupancich. 

    It can be a balancing act. Kocian’s Family Market looks for ways to lower prices, said Mike Kocian. He and his employees have been researching ways to meet the challenge of a Dollar General anticipated to be built across the street in Bigfork later this year. 

    The store negotiates with its suppliers and offers a loyalty program to customers for discounts on selected items. There are also new ways of packaging that haven’t been available to groceries before, said Kocian, like bulk items and larger bags, as well as “cheater sizes,” smaller amounts in a package that is then priced lower.

    “But we also want to be here to support the community,” he points out. “There’s a steady stream of people who need funds to grow their organizations … This is our community and we want to continue serving it.”

    Almost all profits from a locally owned business stay and work in the community, said Procter, and this is the story that needs to be told. 

    Jim Zupancich agreed: “The local guy who helps your community is the guy you want to stay true to.”

Group hopes to fuel region’s mining growth

June 29, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

    Mining in Northeastern Minnesota continues to be a hot topic, with both sides of the copper-nickel mining debate generating vocal support. A nonprofit group formed in Ely, Up North Jobs, is a strong proponent of expanding mines in the area. 

    To that end, they have organized a series of talks they call monthly mining programs, with Mike Cole, founder of the private group Minnesota Miners, speaking to the group last month.

    The Ely resident says he is particularly concerned with the similar governmental regulation challenges facing the mining industry across state borders.

    Engaging pro-mining groups across the country through social media, Cole says his organization has found support from people not just in Minnesota, but also Wisconsin, Michigan and Montana. 

    “I’m tired of seeing what’s happening to the communities in northeastern Minnesota with the ever-dwindling school enrollment and lack of small town businesses,” Cole said.

    Arguing that too much attention has been paid to developing tourism, Cole believes tourist dollars cannot replace the economic security of mining.

    “The weather is too variable, the dynamic of the younger generation – who don’t want to go on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters without all the amenities and wifi – makes tourism something we can’t depend on. It’s not sustainable,” Cole stated.

    He grew up in Ely, and previously worked for a security company at the mines, so he understands the ebb and flow that also comes with a mining economy.

    Still, he is placing his bets on mining expanding into the copper nickel realm, and Cole says he believes more mining will bring a wave of new family residents, school enrollment and demand for clinics and all the infrastructure that a growing population brings with it.

    Originally affiliated with the group Fight for Mining Minnesota, Cole says he was inspired to start Minnesota Miners because he wanted to broaden connections to other communities outside of the state that were experiencing similar obstacles.

    “We all have to work together toward a common goal, and in places like Montana and Wyoming they have been fighting a lot longer than we have,” Cole said.

    Communicating through a closed Facebook group, Cole distributes news from several states, and uses Twitter daily to get their message across to state and federal legislators who they believe can help their cause.

    “The biggest obstacle is regulations and the way they’ve been twisted to serve one side of the environmental story. We want to see redundancy in the permitting process eliminated,” Cole said, citing PolyMet’s 13-year-long permitting process as too time consuming and lengthy.

    Responding to the oft-cited statement that no copper nickel mining has ever been done safely, Cole says it’s just not true, and that at least three copper nickel mines in Wisconsin, Michigan and Montana have never had violations.

    “If I thought for a minute that they couldn’t do this safely I’d be standing in line with the environmentalists saying ‘no way,’ but PolyMet has shown they’ve taken every precaution to avoid contamination,” Cole said.

    

    While Gerald Tyler, founder of the Up North Jobs pro-mining group, says they are non-partisan, he does agree that elections are important to their platform. 

    “If candidates are running from any party on an agenda that includes job creation, we support them,” Tyler said. He has added the oil pipeline to Up North Jobs’ mission.

    “The governor (Dayton) should have supported the Bakken line, but Enbridge’s Line 3 project would benefit the region for the jobs it would provide in terms of construction dollars, and would pay property taxes to the counties it goes through,” Tyler said.

    Claiming thousands of members and supporters, Tyler says being a part of the group is an opportunity for those who cannot be prominent in the public eye because of their business ties.

    Tyler says he has confidence in the governmental procedures that are currently in place to protect the environment, adding that the take home message is really to allow the process to work.

    “The MPCA and EPA would not issue permits if it was not safe. All Twin Metals is doing is trying to obtain permits to continue the exploration and feasibility studies,” Tyler stated.

    Up North Jobs and Gerald Tyler were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the State of Minnesota that was recently dropped. The lawsuit was directed at Gov. Dayton’s decision to limit access for mineral exploration on state lands. Tyler says the group will not pursue an appeal due to the cost and has no other pending lawsuits.

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Senate ayes land exchange between PolyMet, Forest Service

June 20, 2018

    The U.S. Senate on Monday approved legislation for a land exchange between the Forest Service and PolyMet Inc. that will allow the nonferrous mining company to consolidate its mineral holdings. The exchange previously was approved by the House of Representatives.

    The exchange has been opposed by environmentalists who are trying to stop nonferrous mining. They contend the U.S. Forest Service is providing its land at a price that has been set artificially low. Although Forest Service officials have approved the exchange, they face a number of lawsuits. But with the House and Senate advancing special legislation, those lawsuits will be void.

    PolyMet executives said the legislation marks another major milestone in PolyMet’s development of Minnesota’s first copper-nickel-precious metals mine, which will be located near Hoyt Lakes.

    The land exchange measure was included as a Senate amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed on a 85-10 vote. Last November the House of Representatives passed the land exchange bill on an overwhelming, bipartisan 309-99 vote.

    The Senate amendment was sponsored by Sen. Tina Smith and co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It is nearly identical to the bill authored by Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), The Superior National Forest Land Exchange Act of 2017, which he introduced in the House last summer and shepherded to passage. His bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by fellow Minnesota Democrat Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, and Republicans Tom Emmer and Jason Lewis, among others.

    In January 2017, the Superior National Forest issued a Record of Decision authorizing the administrative land exchange, determining it was in the best public interest.

    “We are very grateful to House and Senate members and leadership who have worked tirelessly to bring this land exchange to closure,” Jon Cherry, PolyMet President and CEO, said in a news release. “We also acknowledge with gratitude the strong hand of support shown to this legislation by business and labor groups, community leaders and local supporters.”

    The transfer of approximately 6,650 acres of federal lands to PolyMet consolidates surface land and mineral ownership in and around the company’s NorthMet ore body.

    With title transfer, PolyMet will have total surface ownership rights of approximately 19,000 contiguous acres (30 square miles) of land including the land at the mine and processing sites, the transportation corridor connecting those sites, and buffer.

    Jobs for Minnesotans, a pro-industry group, issued a statement supporting the vote.

    “Last week we acknowledged the milestone that the closing on the PolyMet land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service has been scheduled for later this month. Today, we celebrate the bipartisan U.S. Senate vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the PolyMet land exchange. We fully recognize that this momentous vote moves us a step closer to full congressional affirmation of the U.S. Forest Service’s past decision on the land exchange. This will allow the project to move forward with certainty after rigorous input from the public through the environmental review process. We thank our senators for championing this legislation to date.”

Hawkins Overlook to get an overhaul

June 14, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    The Hawkins Mine Pit Overlook in Nashwauk is set to undergo a renovation, bringing it up to accessibility standards and making the popular draw a more intentional-use space. The project will be funded by an Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation grant and donations.

    With little fanfare the area at the west end of Central Avenue in Nashwauk already attracts thousands of visitors each year who want to pull out and look at the sweeping view of the deep, blue lake set in the geologically unique rock ledges.

    Currently in the midst of developing plans for the restoration, April Kurtock, Nashwauk city administrator and clerk/treasurer, says that the city recognized they have a historic and natural attraction that has been under utilized.

    “It is the crown jewel of town that already sees a tremendous amount of traffic, a beautiful little area that needs a more intentional focus instead of the cluttered, catch-all it has become,” Kurtock stated.

    Leased to the Deering (International) Harvester Company and operated by Wisconsin Steel initially, the mine opened in 1902. Operating until 1962, hundreds of thousands of tons of iron ore had been shipped from what was first an underground mine, then a pit before it closed.

    Named after one E.B. Hawkins who was a state senator from Duluth, the Hawkins Mine put Nashwauk on the map as the first established mining town in Itasca County on the western Mesabi Range. Nashwauk officially became a town in 1903 with 220 residents, and by 1911 had grown to over 2,000.

    Currently developing engineering plans for the first phase of the project, Kurtock says the present overview structure has rotting wood that has started to fail. 

    Nashwauk has been concentrating on beautification efforts during the past five years, and currently MnDOT is working on Highway 65/1st Street which will bring it up to ADA standards, with the city replacing the water main.

    Kurtock saw at the timing as right, and is latching on to the momentum that ongoing projects have brought to revitalizing the town.

    “Why not the overlook as well? We can keep the double-view of the mine and the view down on the city all the way down Central Avenue,” Kurtock said.

    The first time the city made a request for an IRRRB grant it was denied, with officials stating that greater community involvement was needed to win IRRRB approval.

    Whitney Ridlon, IRRRB community development representative, says that IRRRB emphasizes the necessity of community engagement as a requirement for such grants because long-term success depends on it.

    “The more communities support a project, the more sustainable it is in the long run, and the citizen engagement for the Hawkins Overlook has turned out to be amazing,” Ridlon stated.

    Phase one of the project, hoped to be completed before Fall, will include a new elevated viewing platform with a handicap accessible ramp, renovation of part of the parking lot, a picnic area, and a small children’s park with a mining theme.

    The $50,000 grant came from the Downtown and Business Corridor program, a product of the Recharge the Range strategic planning.

    “The overlook project is creative and highly visible, making it into a great community space,” Ridlon said.

    Around $12,000 in donations came from residents, but also from people who no longer live in the area whose grandparents or great grandparents once worked in the Hawkins Mine. Kiosks with donors and historical information also will be part of the overlook’s new design.

    A second phase is still in the development stage, but could include a pavilion.

Magnetation, Essar buyer faces legal challenges

April 19, 2018

The businessman who acquired the former Magnetation and Essar Steel Minnesota properties is facing two federal court challenges, and an objection has been filed in the final Magnetation settlement.

Millionaire Tom Clarke has missed a mandatory tax payment at Magnetation’s biggest asset: the new pellet plant the company built in Reynolds, Ind. According to documents filed Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Minnesota district, that’s a default.

 

Documents say, based on an agreement between ERP and White County, $517,646 is owed for real property taxes and $5.6 million for personal property taxes. White County is asking the court to order immediate payment. A hearing is scheduled May 8.

At a hearing scheduled Thursday in St. Paul, the court will review a motion from the U.S. Trustee in the Magnetation bankruptcy. In an April 13 filing, Trustee James L. Snyder objected to a motion filed by Magnetation LLC that would dismiss the Chapter 11 case.  Snyder indicated he does not believe the distributions would be fair because it gives preference to some creditors’ claims over others, particularly to “professionals.” Language in the motion suggests creditors might do better under a Chapter 7 bankruptcy scenario.

 

The battle between Cleveland Cliffs and Clarke is also reaching new heights in yet another lawsuit.

When he purchased the assets of Magnetation and Essar Steel Minnesota, Clarke became a competitor of Cliffs. The ongoing lawsuit, which involves the 2015 purchase of two Cliffs coal mines by Clarke and his associates, has become intertwined in Clarke’s Minnesota business activities.

In the ongoing lawsuit, initially filed during 2016 in Delaware Federal Court District, Cliffs has expanded its accusations to include criminal activities by Clarke. The accusations reiterate earlier Cliffs’ claims that it has been defrauded of funds and assets that are owed to them. It goes on to contend that Seneca, which was formed by Clarke and his associates to purchase the coal mines, is “laundering” Seneca funds and other company assets “into a new criminal enterprise (called) Mission Coal Co. LLC.”

“Defendants carried out this fraudulent scheme through a sustained pattern, over an extended period of time, of illicit and illegal transfers of Seneca’s assets and funds to their own personal accounts and to other legal entities that they controlled,” Cliffs said in an April 9 filing. The company went on to allege “the scheme, to which all Defendants agreed, was hatched by Thomas Clarke. … it comes from a playbook that he has developed over the course of his career.”

Similar accusations were aired in the March 21 edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek by Clarke’s ex-wife Linda, who had been his business partner. The story said:

In a postdivorce lawsuit, she accused him of shifting money among corporate entities he controlled to keep it from her.

“Mr. Clarke has a history of not paying vendors,” one of his ex-wife’s filings says. “He manages to keep the companies going from cash flow, one company constantly borrows from the other to stay afloat.” 

Cliffs contends that none of the funds recently transferred from Seneca were reserved for the “millions of dollars that Clarke has admitted Seneca owes Cliffs.” 

The law firm representing Clarke and Seneca has filed a motion challenging federal court jurisdiction over the matter and asked for dismissal of the lawsuit. In a March 22 letter to Judge Gerald A. McHugh, counsel representing Clarke and Seneca dubbed Cliffs’ arguments “utterly irrelevant.”

Officials look for answers as Lake Winnie fishery changes

March 29, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

In a lively meeting, Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife experts addressed issues in the Lake Winnibigoshish fishery last week. Fisheries specialists called the meeting to share data and address questions from the public.

To the walleye fisherman, Winnie is a destination lake. In the last few years, however, guides, resorts and anglers have noticed issues with the fishery. 

In 2012, the first zebra mussel veligers (hatchlings) were found, and in 2016 the first adults were identified. Now zebra mussels are attached to virtually every hard surface in the lake. Are they the cause, and if so, what can be done about it?

 

Walleye fish numbers

Has the number of walleye in Winnie gone down? What has been observed by the DNR is that the number of small fish (those that have survived one winter) has decreased. The effect on the fishery, explained Gerry Albert, large lake specialist with the DNR, is this decrease in supply of young fish rather than the removal of larger fish.

Aerial photos of the lake have shown a possible reason for the decrease. The rocky shoreline is prime spawning area for walleye, and during the spawning period, about half of the rocks are out of the water. 

Winnie is a reservoir, with water levels controlled by a dam. Could water levels be adjusted to cover this spawning habitat during spring?

The Corps of Engineers maintains a winter water level at a 1,297 foot elevation above sea level, adjusted in the spring for estimated snow melt. DNR specialists approached the Corps, and this year the winter level was adjusted to 1,297.5 ft. and will be set at 1,298 and rising near ice out and during spawning season. 

There was also a change in stocking method last year. Walleye eggs are stripped annually in the spring at the Cutfoot Sioux narrows and the newly hatched fry are raised under controlled conditions. Ten percent of the fry from stripping are placed back into the Lake Winnie system, about ten times what nature would produce given normal mortality rates. 

In the Little Cutfoot Sioux - Cutfoot Sioux – Lake Winnibigoshish system, about 17 million fry are released annually, mostly into the upstream Cutfoot Sioux lakes. In stocking last summer, the fry were released mostly in Winnie and distributed around the lake. The change was to ensure good zooplankton feedstock for the young fish.

 

Zebra mussels

The most visible effect on Lake Winnie is traceable to zebra mussels. Zebra mussels, or “the Zeebs,” are only about the size of a fingernail, but are outsized when it comes to filtering ability. In fact, once zebra mussels have reached the carrying capacity of a lake, they can filter the entire volume of the lake in 2-3 days. They multiply very fast; each female can produce a million eggs per year.

Lake Winnie, traditionally a green lake with high algae and total dissolved solids, and a secchi disk clarity reading of about 7-8 feet, now has a secchi disk reading of 14 feet. Total dissolved solids have also decreased to about half. 

Can zebra mussels be removed? Although there are research groups looking at this, it’s not likely to be effective in an extended system like the Lake Winnie system, said Albert. As an example of fish movement through the system, one fish tagged in Cutfoot Sioux was later caught 7 miles downstream near Bemidji. 

The actual affect of zebra mussels on fish is still a question. For instance, there are some lakes in the country which have maintained good walleye fishing in spite of a zebra mussel infestation.

Fishing for walleye in a clear Lake Winnie requires different tactics, Albert pointed out. Walleye, with their enlarged eyes, do well feeding on small yellow perch in shallow, cloudy lakeshore areas. When those areas are clear, walleye move to deeper, darker water to feed. They will return to shallow water when there is wind, low sun early or late in the day, or cloudy weather. Anglers need to explore new locations to find walleye.

 

Other possibilities

Although the walleye fishery changes have coincided with the zebra mussel infestation, they may be caused by an undiscovered factor or a combination of factors. There are other invasives in or near the lake, for instance: banded mystery snails, Chinese mystery snails and faucet snails are present as is starry stonewort. In Cass Lake the rusty crayfish has been identified, and curly leafed pondweed is in Dixon Lake. 

There also could be a weather factor: early ice out and warmer water temperatures that encourage spawning with a late spring cooling can reduce fry survival. The early 90s had a similar decrease in small fish numbers, so perhaps it is a cyclical effect.

 

What has been ruled out

Slot limits: Data shows that slot limits actually increase fish production. A protected slot limit is similar to a bank account that’s ready to produce interest, explained David Weitzel, area fisheries supervisor for DNR Fish and Wildlife. If there is a fishery collapse, enough mature fish will be present to ensure species survival. In 2000 the slot limit protected fish from 17 in. to 26 in. and was successful in increasing adult fish biomass. In 2015 that slot limit was reduced to between 18 in. and 23 in., with one over 23 in. that may be kept.

Weitzel acknowledged that reducing slot limits satisfies a social need, allowing anglers to keep more fish. But, he asked, is it worth the biological need to keep that protection in place for those years of low young survival?

Stocking: Data shows that there is a “sweet spot” for maximum production at a stocking rate of 1,000 to 1,100 fry per littoral acre (shoreland areas where the water is less than 15 feet deep). This is the stocking rate for Winnie. More fry than that, and production goes down; competition for food affects growth rates so that some fish are too small to survive the winter. 

Too many fish removed: Data shows that subsistence netting is not affecting overall fish population. The audience suggested that cooperation between the DNR and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Department of Resource Management to monitor the total amount taken, however, would round out the data which is relied on for lake management. 

Not enough feedstock: 2015 measurements of zooplankton from Lake Winnie to Leech Lake were high enough to support the fisheries. Yellow perch densities measured by netting in a 90 degree 100 foot arc close to shore showed about a thousand small fish netted, ample for feedstock.

 

Other topics:

The meeting covered many topics on invasives, data collection, historical trends and more. In addition some topics were introduced by questions from the audience. 

Are zebra mussels traveling from lake to lake? The genome of the zebra mussel has been determined, which means scientists can see if different populations are related genetically. Interestingly, there are distinct zebra mussel populations in Minnesota. The zebra mussels in Winnie are genetically related to those in the Brainerd Lakes area, but unrelated to those in Sand Lake. Unique populations also exist in other areas in Minnesota. 

What about transport on docks and boats?

When buying a dock from another lake, new rules state that the dock must be cleaned and stored for 21 days prior to placement. It was noted that support tubes topped by rubber caps should be flushed. 

Could ducks spread the mussels through flyways?

European studies on the Caspian Sea indicate that only human activity was responsible for mussel spread. No known wild animal movements have spread zebra mussels.

Is shipping still bringing in invasives through ballast?

No new aquatic invasives from Great Lakes shipping have been identified for nine years, since ballast changes were required to be done only in salt water.

Could new rock habitat just become zebra mussel habitat? 

Ice scouring cleans off rocks and removes mussels during ice out, but in any case viable walleye eggs can be laid on mussels and do hatch.

 

Summary

The Lake Winnibigoshish fishery is changing, and DNR data indicate that there is a reduction in the number of small fish. This may be natural or in response to one of several possible factors. This year the agency is addressing it by raising the water level of the lake to cover spawning habitat.

The DNR is also changing the way it stocks the lake system, moving most of the release areas to Lake Winnie from Cutfoot Sioux.

The presence of zebra mussels has clarified the water in the lake, changing the habits of walleye. Anglers need to understand where and when walleye will be located in a much clearer lake.

More counties seek damages from opioid makers

March 01, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

Across the country, municipal and local governments are calculating taxpayer costs racked up by the opioid crisis, both monetary and social.

“Everybody hurts,” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, “and you’ve got the irresponsibility of the pharmaceutical industry compounding that pain.”

Lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors are also gaining momentum throughout northern Minnesota. To date, St. Louis, Itasca and Carlt