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

March 26, 2020

BusinessNorth Report


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHED merger to create seemless student experience

March 19, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigfork Valley Hospital board committee looks at strategic planning tool

March 05, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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


Retail pharmacy

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

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

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


Nursing Home

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

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

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

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


Other scenarios

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

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

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

Product diversity key to mill’s future

February 27, 2020

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

By Ron Brochu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Three years ago, LusterCote joined the Cloquet product line. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judges weigh in on jail options

February 13, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenway School Board revises budget due to higher revenues

February 06, 2020

By Kathy Lynn, KOZY Radio


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

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

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

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

    In other business, the board: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Acknowledged Mike Vekich, Softball Booster coach 2019-20 

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

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

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

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

Walz Administration launches ‘clean car’ initiative

January 30, 2020

By Kitty Mayo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

    In other business, the board:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jail Committee sets public meetings, hears funding options

January 09, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

    ● End of January: Board consensus on project alternatives 

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

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

    ● Feb. 6, 20: Public informational sessions

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

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

    Public comments and informational sessions:

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

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

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

Funding options:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Public input

    The following are highlights of comments:

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

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

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

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

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

Prairie River Minerals announces completion of pilot plant testing

December 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

    The company has yet to announce start-up timelines.

Board updated on ISD 318 superintendent search

November 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In other business, the board:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Accepted statutory changes to Policy 611 on home schooling.

US Steel to eliminate non-union jobs

November 14, 2019

BusinessNorth Report


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

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

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

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

U.S. Steel shipments rise

October 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

Bovey makes its case before the state senate bonding committee

September 19, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

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

IRRRB funds solar plant, Grand Rapids treatment facility

September 12, 2019

By Bill Hanna


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

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

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

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

    The loan is secured with the equipment to be purchased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The total project cost is $1.925 million.


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

Twin Metals, labor share strong partnership

August 29, 2019

    By Bill Hanna


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Osborne lauded Iron Range labor workers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Coleraine moves forward with stormwater project grant writing

August 22, 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to pass the new sexual assault investigation policy.

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

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

    • Approved a liquor license for the Locker Room Bar.

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

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

    • Approved payment number 4 for the Force Main Project.

Cliffs celebrates $100 million investment

August 15, 2019

By Ron Brochu


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenway takes a pass on shared facilities talks

August 08, 2019

By Kitty Mayo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former health care CEO: delivery is changing rapidl

August 01, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

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

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

    Sound fantastic? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vandals cause damage at Keewatin Elementary

July 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

    In other business, the board:

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

    • Approved the annual 10 year maintenance plan

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

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

July 22, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In other business, the council:

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

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

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

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

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

    Complete minutes are posted on

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 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 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.