Manufacturing plant in Bigfork may close

June 04, 2020

    COVID-19 has taken another swipe at northland manufacturing – this time in Bigfork, Minn.

    Canadian company e2ip technologies (formerly GGI Solutions), which has a small manufacturing plant just north of Bigfork, has announced plans to relocate Bigfork operations to its Canadian headquarters in Montreal. The company, which is invested in the aviation, medical and other industries, took a large hit from the COVID-19 downturn in the market and is planning to consolidate, according to Tamara Lowney, president of the Itasca Economic Development Corporation in Grand Rapids.

    The announcement was made to employees on May 13, and will affect 58 jobs, said Russ Puddicombe, U.S. director of operations. The Bigfork plant assembles membrane switches, as well as other digital products.

    There may be some light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, e2ip technologies is working with all levels of government and agencies like the IEDC to avoid a closure, said Eric Saint-Jacques, CEO of the company. Although the plant could start a shut down process July 1, Saint-Jacques pointed to the “amazing work” that Lowney was doing toward creating the revenue sources that would allow the plant to stay open. 

    Lowney said that the company has been trying to be upfront about the decision, following U.S. guidelines that activated the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Rapid Response Team. That team works with employees in layoff situations to let them know what options are available and what to expect. The tentative timeline includes progressive layoffs starting in mid-summer with final plant closing by the end of 2020.

    Meanwhile, Lowney said, there is some very aggressive activity going on behind the scenes to support keeping the jobs in the Bigfork area. Primarily, she said, they would like to retain e2ip technologies and are seeking ways to do this, including developing an additional customer base. 

    If that is not possible, the facility will be promoted to other businesses and manufacturers. It has a good building next to an enhanced airstrip and a trained workforce, she pointed out. Finally, the goal is to support the employees that are affected.

    “e2ip technologies is a critical employer for Bigfork and the surrounding area,” Lowney noted. “While this is a difficult situation, we are committed to pursuing every opportunity to keep these important jobs in this community. IEDC as well as local and state leaders are working together to find way forward that will help to support the workforce through this process.”

Northern MN leader named Blandin Foundation President and CEO

May 21, 2020

    Trustees of Blandin Foundation have selected Tuleah S. Palmer of Cass Lake, Minn., as the foundation’s next president and CEO following a national search. 

    Palmer currently serves as executive director of Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji, a member of the Governor’s Workforce Development Council, advisor to the Future Services Institute of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and in many other roles. Palmer has been a leader and advocate throughout northern Minnesota over her 27-year career. She originally is from Deer River, Minn., and is a graduate of Bemidji State University.

    Among many accolades and awards, Palmer was recognized in 2019 by The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation as its Facing Race Statewide Award honoree. The Bush Foundation also recently recognized Palmer’s leadership and the work of her organization, awarding the Northwest Indian Community Development Center with their annual Bush Prize and $500,000 in recognition of proven community impact. Featured as one of 2019’s “Voices of Inspiration,” StarTribune writer Gail Rosenblum described Palmer as one of the “quiet heroes eager to improve the lot of others.”

    “Tuleah is an absolute rock star,” said Heidi Korstad, Blandin Foundation board chair. “Her vision, energy, and innovation will lead the Blandin Foundation to a whole new level of impact and relevance. Even better, she is of rural Minnesota.”

    Palmer emerged from a 10-month national search yielding more than 100 candidates. Blandin Foundation is one of only a handful of private foundations in the nation focusing its resources and work exclusively for the benefit of rural communities. The foundation, founded in 1941 by Charles K. Blandin, works to strengthen rural Minnesota communities, especially the Grand Rapids and Itasca County area. 

    “What really stands out about Tuleah is her proven track record of creative problem-solving,” said Korstad. “Excellent candidates emerged from our search, and it’s a real credit to our region that the visionary, thoughtful, equitable leader we were looking for was right here in our backyard. Our trustees were impressed by her extensive networks and her ability to find solutions that work for everybody.”

    “I am incredibly honored to move from serving a high performing team doing incredible community work to another high performing organization that has such a critical role in elevating rural and tribal communities,” Palmer said. “This decision represents critical affirmation by the Blandin Foundation to continue efforts to advance rural and tribal community vitality locally and statewide.”

    Palmer succeeds Dr. Kathleen Annette, who joined Blandin Foundation in September 2011. During Annette’s 10-year tenure, Blandin Foundation awarded 1,798 grants, trained 667 rural community leaders statewide through its leadership programs, and engaged hundreds of rural Minnesotans in key rural issues around broadband access and use, early childhood, quality youth programming, economic development, education, healing from racial and cultural division, and the 2020 Census. 

    “We will certainly miss Kathy Annette’s leadership as we transition to Tuleah Palmer,” said Korstad. “Kathy has had a remarkable career with the Blandin Foundation. She has been the courageous, trusted voice for rural equity in our local area, the State of Minnesota, and at a national level. Because of her outstanding leadership, the foundation is in great shape for the upcoming transition. We have a committed and talented staff, we are in a strong financial position and have a strong reputation and meaningful relationships.”

    Palmer will step into her new role with Blandin Foundation on July 13.

Bigfork Valley Hospital receives over $16,000 in community support

May 14, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Bigfork area hospital district community has given its hospital $16,427 to assist with pandemic expenses through the Bigfork Valley Community Foundation. The gifts were announced at the May 5 hospital board meeting.

    In addition, community members have sewn masks (used for patients and visitors who come to the campus) and the Timberwolf Inn has sponsored a fundraiser for the effort. “Community support has been wonderful,” said CEO Aaron Saude.

    The hospital has been affected by the COVID-19 protocols since mid-March with a shutdown of services, and surgeries slowing in late March. The surgical wing was subsequently repurposed for an isolation ward for the virus. Over 45 employees were affected with furloughs, lower hours, unpaid leave or use of paid time off hours. At the end of March, there were just over 164 FTEs (full time equivalents) on staff.

    Financials showed a loss of ($714, 352) in March with a year-to-date loss of ($931,347) as of March 30. The hospital has been actively pursuing grants and other funds to help with financial loss during the pandemic, in April receiving about $3.6 million in advance payments from Medicare and about $2.1 million in a forgivable loan from the second round of the CARES Act for wages, health insurance, utilities and mortgage interest. Both are loans, with the estimated payback for the latter at about $600,000 although the restart of elective surgeries may decrease that amount.

    Other funds received or applied for include grants from the Minnesota Department of Health of $75,000 and a requested $173,000, a stimulus payment of $424,000, a possible grant of $84,000 from the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, and a future federal program targeted at rural hospitals. In addition, the hospital received one of 13 analyzers from the state for nasal swab testing. The hospital lab hopes to have an in-house antibody test ready by the end of May.

    Saude said the hospital was looking at two models for the number of COVID-19 cases in the state, one peaking in July that might exceed the state capacity for ICU beds and ventilators, and one peaking in mid-September. 

    In other news, Bigfork Valley has received a Top 20 Critical Access Hospital Best Practice in Patient Satisfaction Award from the National Rural Health Association. Bigfork Valley has received this award more than any other hospital in the country. 

    A peer recognition award was given to Tiffany Lillo, an employee in long term care.

    There are nine of 13 board positions open for election in 2020. Filing is through the hospital between July 28 and Aug. 11. Hospital board positions represent political units and the open positions include the cities of Bigfork and Effie; the townships of Bigfork, Marcell, Pomroy, Stokes and Wirt; and unorganized townships of Itasca and Koochiching counties.

    The next regular hospital board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 2 at 9 a.m. 

    Information from the hospital board meeting of May 5 and Finance Committee meeting of April 28.

Change language during COVID-19, urges mental health professional

May 07, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    In a press briefing on Friday highlighting mental health professionals around Itasca County, Tom Gaffney, medical director to the county crisis response and Veteran’s response teams, urged people to change their language around social distancing. It’s better, he said, to refer to “physical distancing” so it is not interpreted as having to stay in the house away from social contact. People still need to socialize in a reasonable fashion for good mental health, he pointed out.

    Mental health professionals joined a new biweekly press update on the county pandemic response to highlight the fact that they were open and still accepting new clients and offering diagnostic and other services. Also represented were First Call for Help, North Homes, Northland Counseling, Children’s Mental Health, Inc. and the Itasca County Mental Health Division. 

    Grand Itasca CEO Jean MacDonell said that although emergency department visits had decreased by 40 percent, mental health cases were staying relatively level at about 6 patients a week, down from 8 patients per week before the pandemic. 

    All the mental health resources reported being active, some saying they were seeing a different type of client. Gaffney said that there was an increase in clients due to anxiety as opposed to other reasons like depression. Many callers to 211 First Call for Help are first time users, some with higher intensity needs, said Cre Larson, executive director of the service. 

    Larson also said that First Call for Help has the ability to provide phones and/or technology for those without those resources. 

    Access to resources was a common theme, and Itasca County and First Call for Help have developed a website, StableEmbrace.com which includes resources for COVID-19 questions, mental and emotional health support, stay-at-home activities and kids activities. 

    What about the fear of going outside? Gaffney acknowledged that it can be tough to take those first steps after sheltering in place. Start small, he suggested. Have someone on the phone as support while just stepping out the door. 

    For those who are just feeling very stressed, it’s OK to feel not normal, said Angie Baratto, COO of Northland Counseling. Everyone is feeling like this – it’s outside the norm.

 

COVID-19 update

    Kelly Chandler, manager of the Itasca County Public Health Division, said that there were 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county as of Friday, May 1. 

    Three cases in congregate living situations were described in a separate press briefing on Tuesday, April 28. They involved two staff members, one at an Orion small residential home, and the other at The Emeralds in Grand Rapids. Both had come in contact with family members who later tested positive for the virus. Residents who had come in contact with those staff were tested, and of the 22 tested, one was positive.

    No new congregate care cases were included in the May 1 number, said Chandler.

    Marc Halpert, chief operating officer of Monarch Healthcare Management which runs The Emeralds, urged, “As we go out there, please wear masks,” he said. “Stop seeing people outside the house, don’t go to see even relatives that are not living with you…It’s the biggest message we can share,” he said.

    Grand Itasca CEO Jean MacDonell addressed testing, saying that testing restrictions have been eased, allowing testing of outpatients who have symptoms, those with underlying chronic health conditions, those over 65, health care workers and emergency workers. After calling for a telephone visit, they may be directed to curbside testing at the hospital, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

    Nationally, there has been a marked decrease in heart attack and stroke cases since the onset of the pandemic, thought to be for fear of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital, said Dr. Thomas Howard, chief medical officer at Essentia Deer River. EMS personnel in Deer River have noticed that patients were delaying seeking medical care. It is safe for anyone to call 911, Howard said. The hospital is sanitized, staff maintains physical distancing, and “we make our rooms safe for care,” he said. 

    Do providers expect an uptick of cases? Yes, said Dr. Dan Soular, vice-president of medical affairs at Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital. He said he believes that increased travel and more testing capability will see the number of cases increase. He urged seasonal residents returning to their cabins from outside the area to quarantine themselves for 14 days. 

    People should remain vigilant, according to medical staff. Howard said that even though people may think they don’t know anyone with COVID, that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. 

N-K High School seniors recognized with banners

April 30, 2020

    Nashwauk-Keewatin High School seniors were honored with banners by the high school and the City of Nashwauk. The high school shop teacher made them and local bridal shop owner sewed them.  Tom Matire works for the Nashwauk Street and Recreation Department and he helped to coordinate the displaying of the banners. This was done as a way to recognize the 2020 graduates as their year was cut short.

    Ranae Seykora, Principal of Nashwauk-Keewatin High School said, “Nashwauk Keewatin High School staff wanted to recognize and pay tribute to the Class of 2020 as their year was cut short.  Mr. Gabardi, who teaches production management, has the equipment and materials to create projects like this.  Mr. Gabardi designed and printed all 36 banners to honor each senior, and he worked with the City of Nashwauk to have them mounted to the light poles on 3rd Street, the main drag of the small town!  Myrna, from Myrna’s Bridal Boutique on the same street, sewed the banners to fit the poles, and our Ojibwe teacher, Michele Carrigan paid the sewing fee.  Myrna has a senior in the NKHS class of 2020 as well.  The school community is like family and we are so proud of our graduates.”

Cliffs idles Northshore, Tilden

April 16, 2020

BusinessNorth Report

 

    Cleveland-Cliffs announced Monday that based on current market conditions, the company will be temporarily idling production at Northshore Mining in Silver Bay by mid-April with a reopening planned for August. Tilden Mine near Marquette, Mich., will close by the end of April with a restart planned in July.

    Cleveland-Cliffs will work down current inventory levels from those operations and continue to ship iron ore to fulfill its commercial agreements with steel customers, the corporation said in a news release.

    “We have evaluated market conditions and the extraordinary disruptions in manufacturing and steel production in North America due to the impact of the COVID-19 market shock. As our steel customers rationalize their operations’ capacities, we made the decision to adjust our iron ore production during the first half of the year and not continue to build additional iron ore inventory until market conditions improve. Once the North American steel market improves, Cleveland-Cliffs will be able to quickly restart and ramp up production,” said Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Lourenco Goncalves.

    Domestic steel mill utilization continues to fall

    The domestic steel mill capability utilization rate fell to 56.1 percent for the week ending April 11.

    Steel production at domestic steel mills was 1,256,000 net tons for the week, down 18.1 percent compared with 1,534,000 net tons the week ending April 4, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The capability utilization rate for the week ending April 4 was 68.5 percent.

    Steel production was down 33.6 percent the week ending April 11 compared with the same week a year ago. The steel mill capability utilization rate is a key measure of the level at which domestic steel mills are operating.

COVID-19 poses financial challenges for hospital

April 09, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    In a somber April board meeting held by teleconference, CEO Aaron Saude addressed the financial and logistical challenges for Bigfork Valley Hospital in the time of COVID-19.

    For several weeks, the hospital has been making structural changes in operations. Elective procedures have been cancelled, essentially closing the surgery center, chiropractor and walk-in pharmacy. There are limited services in physical therapy and specialty clinics. Prescription delivery is by mail or curbside delivery. All visitors are screened with temperature checks and by questionnaire, and masks are used within the facility. Grab and Go and coffee service has been closed and there is no food service for the community. All meetings – even across the hall – are by conferencing software.

    Rooms have also been repurposed to provide isolation and beds for less serious cases in the hospital, surgery center and long-term care. 

    “It’s a different culture at Bigfork Valley now,” said Saude. “It’s tough.”

    He participates in daily calls with partners in emergency preparedness coalitions who are doing surge planning. That surge is now expected to hit in mid-June.

    The information coming in is almost overwhelming. “At times,” Saude said, “you feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose.”

    He gives high kudos to staff for embracing an effort where things are changing daily. Staff has been reduced, partly by voluntary time off and furloughs. Some surgical staff are cross training to operate in the acute hospital environment.

    Finances through this period are going to be difficult, Saude pointed out, as revenues dry up. That situation isn’t limited to Bigfork Valley. A state grant for $50 million for hospitals received initial requests for five times that amount. Saude said larger hospitals are reporting losses of as much as $1 million a month – some even $1 million a day. The hospital is investigating possible sources of funds since bond covenants may limit borrowing.

    As of the end of February, the hospital financials showed a year-to-date loss of about ($217,000), and Saude cautioned that the board should be prepared for poor financials in March and April. To ensure liquidity, Bigfork Valley has moved long term reserve money from bonds to cash funds held by the investment company. Other hospitals are also doing this to make sure resources are available if bond values decrease.

    Chief Medical Officer Ed Anderson addressed the coronavirus itself, explaining that it was very difficult to manage in its acute phase. The medical staff would plan to treat less acute cases, and might even accept those patients from other hospitals, but would plan to transfer patients whose condition required an intensive care setting. The hospital has a ventilator and two anesthesia machines. 

    On a positive note, Scenic Rivers Health Services primary care clinic has activated a telemedicine option within the last week. 

    In other business, the board:

    • Appointed Teresa Kittridge to the vacant board position from Marcell.

    • Credentialed six medical positions with a 6-month provisional status and two without provisional status.

    • Heard that Financial Analyst Dan Heinecke was appointed as Safety Officer.

    • Heard that federal authorities are considering relaxing some rules during the pandemic, including inspections, audits, HIPAA privacy rules, etc.

    • Recognized Dylan Kinn and Sue Lappegaard for peer appreciation awards.

    Bigfork Valley Community Foundation has established two funds for giving to help the hospital and the hospital district community during this period. Chair George Rounds urged the board to talk with people in the community about the situation and that contributions are welcome and needed. More information about these funds and a donation portal is at bigforkvalleyfoundation.org .

Distance learning dominates school board discussion

March 26, 2020

    The ISD 318 School Board convened for its regularly scheduled meeting on March 16 when Superintendent Sean Martinson discussed the District’s implementation of distance learning. Distance learning will allow students to continue their studies via the internet while schools are shuttered due to the COVID-19 virus.

    Martinson said that the District had a choice whether to send kids home but elected to remain open on Monday and Tuesday of last week in order to allow families to prepare.

 

    “This is a shock and surprise for families trying to prepare for what they do without schools” said Martinson.

    Martinson said that Governor Tim Walz had given districts eight school days to make the transition to distance learning. He said that administrators had been meeting regularly in the days prior to the shutdown to discuss distance learning preparations. 

    Martinson said that the state is asking school districts to provide the same level of education and services that they provide in a normal day but possibly without the children being here. “That’s an extremely daunting task,” Martinson said. “Part of the reason students come to our school is for that equity piece. When kids leave our doors, we can’t control the equity they have and the access they have to education, so this eight days, its going to be needed.”

    Martinson said that one of the other things the district was being asked to provide is care for the families of emergency workers. Martinson said that the purpose of the state’s request to provide on-site child care is to allow emergency responders to continue working. Food service is another area the district has been asked to continue. 

    Communications Coordinator, Jessica Setness, said officials created a list of resources on the district’s website (isd318.org) to include childcare sign-up, and locations of food service sites. Setness said that if a family lived more than three-quarters of a mile from a site, delivery could be an option. Initially, Martinson said families will be asked to pick up food at one of the food service sites and consume it elsewhere. Martinson stressed that the District had to find a way to get food to families, especially if buildings remain shuttered for an extended period of time.

    Martinson concluded his remarks by stressing the importance of collaboration, and putting one’s opinions aside to work towards a common goal. “It’s not about I; it’s about we right now.” 

    From the district’s website:

    • Grab and Go breakfast and lunch will be available at Bigfork School, Cohasset Elementary, Forest Lake Elementary, Murphy Elementary, Southwest Elementary, RJEMS, and GRHS.

    • Meals will be available for pick-up in the school building entryway from 11 to 11:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, following the 2019-2020 student school calendar.

    • Students may receive breakfast and lunch at the school building closest to their residence even if they are not enrolled in that building.

    • Students or families picking up meals are not allowed to eat inside the school.

    • ISD 318 students who are registered for childcare services will receive meals.

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved the hiring of four replacement coaches, bus driver, and a new business manager.

    • Rejected contractor bids for Bigfork commons public restroom tile replacement.

    • Accepted the low bids for Noble Hall turf preparation installation.

Itasca County Board adopts forest management plan, schedules Board of Appeal and Equalization

March 19, 2020

    The county board conducted a public hearing and adopted the Itasca County Forest Management Plan with one attendee, Rick Horton, director of forest policy for the Minnesota Forest Industries, speaking in favor of the plan. He explained that the Land Department had adequately addressed issues and incorporated additional information as requested. He told the board regarding the ongoing discussion on jail financing that his group did not support selling working forest lands.

    Dan Swenson, director of Environmental Services – Zoning reviewed department statistics for 2019. The department gave out 818 permits including 343 septics and 106 new dwelling/cabin building permits. There was a 15 percent failure rate in septics as a five year weighted average. 

Building Trades Council takes issue with some Greenway HVAC project subcontractors

March 05, 2020

By Kathy Lynn / KOZY Radio

 

    At last week’s school board meeting, Greenway officials approved bids for the HVAC project at the Vandyke Elementary School. The project will improve indoor air quality throughout the school, which in turn, creates a better learning environment for the students. 

    During the public comment period of the board meeting, Doug Christie, representative of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council told board directors that the union has concerns about some of the non-union subcontractors. According to Christie, if the board accepted the bid, “We will be requesting certified payroll from all these contractors and you can probably anticipate some work stoppage on this. All these unions will not stand for these people being on these projects, which we normally do, on most all the schools and most of your bigger construction projects.” 

    Dave Gibson, project manager with UNESCO, gave a presentation on the remodel project. Bids for the project were read aloud Feb. 5. Gibson said bid specifics included utilizing prevailing wage. Contractors awarded bids on Wednesday included: Hawk Constructions, JK Mechanical, Parson’s Electric, Johnson Controls, Premiere Test and Balance, and American Engineering and Testing. Asbestos testing will be done by Abate Tek, Inc. Gibson said UNESCO talked with all bidders regarding prevailing wages and they will abide with the wage requirement. Project costs were estimated at $7,119,429. 

    The district’s math department made a presentation on the implementation of the new math curriculum. James Early told board directors that there have been some bumps in the road, but overall the students seem to be adjusting well. “It’s a little harder than what they’re used to, and there’s a little bit of frustration but I think it’s a productive struggle, and I think the more that we have it, the better they’re going to get at it.”

    The school board approved a change in this year’s calendar for Vandyke Elementary, adjusting May 27, 2020 as the last student day due to construction. 

    Donations approved by the board include: 

    • A grant in the amount of $1,000 from the Range Engineering Council for a STEM initiative at Vandyke Elementary.

     • Food Service Angel Fund Donations: First National Bank Coleraine - $610.00; Kaleb Krew Fundraiser - $1478.

    • A $500 donation from the Greenway Alumni Association for the Class of 2021 (Student Activity). 

    • A $500 donation to the 6th Grade Class for its Laurentian trip from the Greenway Alumni Association.

    The board also approved the retirement of Cynthia Bishop, who has been a teacher in the district for over 25 years. 

    Other personnel changes approved by the board include: 

    • Will Floersheim, teacher, lane change from BA75/MA, Step 8 to BA75/MA 15, Step 8, effective March 1.

    • Internal hire of Donnarae Drieman, Food Service Position No. 10, Assistant Cook/Food Delivery, effective Feb. 10.

    • Approved the hire of Dan Persons, Boy’s Baseball Head Coach, 10 points, effective for the 2019-20 season. 

    • Approved the hire of Bailey Thorson, Boy’s Baseball Assistant Coach, 7 points, effective for the 2019-20 season.

    • Approved the hire of Josh Woodley, Boy’s Baseball Middle School Coach, 3 points, effective for the 2019-20 season. 

    • Approved the hire of Will Floersheim, Boy’s Track and Field Head Coach, 10 points, effective for the 2019-20 season. 

    • Approved the hire of Rhaya Tomberlin, Girl’s Track and Field Head Coach, 10 points, effective for the 2019-20 season. 

    • Approve hire of Kevin Kosel, Girl’s Golf Coach, 4 points, effective for the 2019-20 season.

Greenway looks to the future along several fronts

January 01, 2020

By Kathy Lynn / KOZY Radio

 

    Independent School District 316’s school board met in a workshop Feb. 19 to discuss topics not on an agenda, but of district-wide importance. Mike Williams, the new board chair, walked the board through five topics, including facilities, financing, curriculum, staffing and communications with the public. Williams asked the board to consider plans for the next five years.

 

Facilities

    The district is in the process of awarding bids for a $12 million renovation/expansion. Space will continue to be an issue for Vandyke Elementary. Chair Williams said he would like to get rid of the portable classrooms within five years. According to Superintendent David Pace, any new addition or new building would have to go before voters in the form of a campaign. He told the directors that the district’s debt will remain steady until 2031. 

    “Our lease (of the portables) is up and we have looked at a replacement model and it was expensive. It was way more expensive than I expected.” 

 

Finances 

    School finances follow student’s average daily attendance (ADM) and ISD 316 loses students to a number of districts, predominantly to ISD 318. One of the open enrollment studies showed that once a student starts at Greenway, he or she is likely to stay and eventually graduate Greenway. The study also demonstrated that if Greenway students start in another district, he or she will probably graduate there. 

    Superintendent David Pace told the board that there might be more dollars available for Early Childhood programs, but the district doesn’t have room for programming. If neighboring districts are able to provide that space and children start their education away from Greenway, they may never come back. Board member Gary Gustafson, “I’ve talked to a few families. If their daycaring is over there and they live over here and they’re driving and working over there, and then all of a sudden they’re getting picked up by the bus there, they never experience our schools.” 

 

Curriculum

    Director LaNea Johnson asked if the district could consider offering Baccalaureate level classes. High School Principal Jeff Britten told board members that having teachers with multiple licences available might allow the district to offer more remedial classes, including math.

    Board Director Bob Schwartz said math is a sore spot for him. “I’m going to say it, I’m sure it’s going to get back to me and that’s fine, it’s the quality of math teachers we got. It needs to be upgraded. And there has to be more demand on that unit. They have to perform or we have to find someone that can. There’s no sense in adding upper rigor classes when we can’t get at the bottom.” 

    The district spent over $150,000 on curriculum for the 2019-2020 school year. Director Bill Hoeft echoed Schwartz’ comments, “We have what we have to work with, we’re just not maximizing what needs to be maximized.” He said, “the college in the schools certification is where our investment probably needs to be for Greenway.” 

    Chair Williams added, ”We just spent $70,000 on a new math program. I expect to see some results for spending $70,000. That was a big outlay. I hear they’re (teachers) are excited about it (the teaching program). And, I’m excited about it. There needs to start being results. I don’t expect it in one year, but there needs to be some uptick on that pretty soon.” 

    According to the World’s Best workforce (WBW) report on the district’s website, MCA Math scores have had inconsistent progress at the 7th, 8th and 11th grades. Currently Math is in the curriculum review cycle. Representatives from the math department 5-12 have begun work utilizing the MDE Mathematics Toolkit to review benchmark data over the past 5 years to identify any gaps and/or correlations across grades and levels.

 

Staffing

    “The big challenge for me as a school board member is a big sense the community wants the identity of Greenway, they want to hang on to that no matter what. But, at the same time, with other schools, Eveleth/Virginia moving together, Hibbing/Chisholm talking… All the teacher unions are talking at a meeting tonight (2/19/2020) trying to figure collaboration out. How do we, and who do we work with to offer our kids the opportunities they deserve but keep our identity? That’s the big challenge,” said Schwartz.

    According to Superintendent Pace, the STEM grant is a good example of collaboration. After the five year grant expires, however, the challenge will be how to pay for it. IASC (Itasca Area Schools Collaborative) is another example. Shared services through IASC help districts as well, he said. “I think we can build a foundation in which the sharing of classroom services and development of exceptional programs is going to be there in which we don’t have to fully consolidate and each single school district will be able to remain and keep their identity.”

    Pace was named Chair of the IASC Board on Tuesday night. 

    Pace said as long as we’re looking at making positive impacts for the students, we’re always going to trend in the right direction.

    The school board meets in regular session Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. 

Effie receives sewer system permit

February 13, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At its Monday meeting, the Effie City Council discussed how to be sensitive to community members who want to salvage a keepsake from the old Effie School before it is demolished, yet protect the city by only having bonded, insured and licensed contractors do salvage work. 

    The council came to the conclusion that there was no way to accomplish both, since only companies would go through the bonding process, but companies would want the whole building intact. Mayor Greta Drewlow will consult the city attorney and insurance agent about options. Salvage companies will also be explored before the next council meeting.

    The council has received its Minnesota Pollution Control Agency National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, which expires Nov. 30, 2024. However, the city must develop a phosphorus management plan, and an inflow and infiltration (I&I) reduction plan with annual reviews and updates. Minnesota Rural Water will help with the phosphorus plan, and the council voted to retain Bolton & Menk for engineering help in developing the I&I reduction plan. 

    In other business the council:

    • Approved January 2019 claims and payroll of $4,478.81.

    • Discussed changing the assistant wastewater operator position from salaried to hourly. A decision was tabled until March.

    • Discussed the snowplowing account, already over budget because of the winter weather.

    • Heard that the county will decide on what will be done with an abandoned property in March.

    • Heard that the electric cooperative plans to replace all streetlights in Effie with LED lights.

    • Will evaluate the furnace in the old Effie School gym for transfer to the community center later in the spring.

    The next meeting will take place at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 10 at the Effie Community Center.

Deer River Schools look to the future

February 06, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Independent School District 317 (Deer River) held a community listening session on Jan. 28 in Talmoon. It’s part of a long range planning effort taking the district 20 years into the future, according to school officials.

    Two points were the basis of the meeting: high school facilities are aging, with most parts of the high school now over 40 years old; and a changing environment will require re-evaluating the educational needs of today’s student and how to allocate space for that learning. 

    Superintendent Matt Grose said that the meeting was part of a series of meetings that have been held with staff, students, the city of Deer River, the Deer River Chamber of Commerce and community members at Inger, Ball Club and the high school. Led by consultants from ICS, participants were asked six questions and then asked to rank their priorities for future facility changes.

    Community meetings were poorly attended; there were eight at this listening session and fewer at previous ones. Not surprisingly, how to communicate was one of the questions. Facebook was the only advertising used, but suggestions were to use mail, town halls, phone, face to face meetings and an updated website. 

    Other questions centered around perceptions of what was good about the district and what headlines people wanted to read in the future about their school district, career educational paths that the district might be uniquely positioned to offer, and advice participants would give the district. That advice centered mostly around communication with the community.

    Career path ideas showed a wide variety from trades to technology. Natural resources, health care, hospitality and teaching also were suggested fields of concentration.

    The most important priority chosen by the group was to update the science and agricultural science areas of the high school. The second choice was to offer tours or open houses so that the community could see the high school facilities. The main school is closed off during events, but safety and security measures were understood and listed as the third priority. Other priorities were evenly distributed between improving transportation time for students, the need for windows in classrooms, looking for ways to attract community to come to the school (such as exercise areas or a pool), and updating industrial tech areas. 

    Information collected from the outreach meetings will be included in a future report. 

Bigfork Community Enhancement Project forges ahead

January 30, 2020

by Sally Sedgwick

    At the time that the ISD 318 school referendum was passed in 2018, there was another question that did not pass: locker room and weight room space and new turf for athletic fields for the Bigfork School.

    But that didn’t mean that the need went away.

    Now the school and community have banded together to see if the essentials could happen with a project that benefits both groups.

    The $1.9 million estimated cost is scaled down from the $5.1 million ballot question, but keeps the core facility needs. The project would build out from the east side of the current large gym, adding a community/school weight room and public rest rooms, new boys and girls locker rooms directly accessing the gym space and athletic fields, and 375 square feet of Edge Center storage and dressing area.

    Project partners include the Bigfork School and Independent School District 318, the Edge Center for the Arts (owned by ISD 318), the city of Bigfork, Northern Itasca Joint Powers Board, Minnesota Highway 38 Leadership Board and the Bigfork Valley Community Foundation. 

    Currently the school has two older locker rooms which are small, inconveniently located and do not have updated ventilation sufficient to dry out equipment. Visiting teams are obliged to use classrooms or other open rooms to dress when there are more than two teams playing, such as in girls and boys doubleheaders or when there are additional JV games. Also, other sports have to vacate the locker rooms early when there is a home game. Supervision is also difficult when teams are spread among different rooms.

    Weight rooms provide a way to condition for sports and thus reduce injuries. The current room is not adequate and has been relocated away from the gyms. A weight room open to community use will complement the hospital fitness center‘s cardio equipment. In the proposed design, the public can access the weight room and public restrooms while school access is controlled. 

    “More space in the locker rooms would lead to a cleaner, healthier environment compared to the current cramped space,” said Assistant Football Coach Garrett Mann. “A larger, updated weight room would be much safer and provide more well-rounded training for athletes and students, which in turn would lead to fewer injuries in competition.” 

    The Edge Center brings many outside cultural programs to Bigfork as well as being a venue for school and community arts and theater productions. It currently rents needed additional storage ten miles away. The design for the new addition includes dedicated space adjacent to the theater.

    Bigfork has been proactive in grassroots initiatives to complete community projects. Recently the Bigfork City Hall was restored through local efforts. The school project is seen as an enhancement to both the RiverWalk Trail and the Edge Center – which were also largely funded by donations and grants pursued by local users. 

    “The addition of public restrooms accessible from the RiverWalk Trail,” commented Bigfork City Clerk Angie Storlie, “is a wonderful added amenity to the trail, and overall the entire project will enhance the city, school and community.”

    ISD 318 has committed matching funds of $600,000 to the project once that amount has been raised. The capital campaign will have a fundraising goal of $1.3 million with an estimated timeline of two to five years. 

    To donate, contact the Bigfork Valley Community Foundation at (218) 743-4116, send a gift to BVCF at P.O Box 44 Bigfork, MN 56628 or contribute online at bigforkvalleyfoundation.org. 

Jail Committee narrows options to two, sets public meeting schedule

January 23, 2020

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    During the fourth meeting of the Itasca County Jail Committee, commissioners discussed ways to advertise outreach town hall meetings, a survey for the public and two conceptual remodeling options that had been refined on request.  

 

Outreach:

    Dates and locations for public meetings arranged by commissioners will be advertised in the Scenic Range NewsForum, Hibbing Daily Tribune, Herald Review and Manney’s Shopper. News releases will also be submitted to other area outlets including radio.    

    A schedule for Town Hall meetings is online at: www.co.itasca.mn.us/792/new-jail-facilities, or can be accessed from the sidebar on the county commissioner page. Meetings are scheduled across the county from Jan. 28 through April 1.  Two Open House meetings in the Board Room at the courthouse hosted by jail administration are scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 6 and Thursday, Feb. 20 from 5 to 7 p.m.

    A survey that can be accessed online or filled out at one of the meetings will be available beginning on Jan. 28.  

 

New jail options:

    Two new jail remodeling options which would extend the courthouse footprint to the west were discussed. 

    These options were in addition to Jail Task Force options for a greensite facility or expansion of the current courthouse/jail footprint to the north or east.  They were presented as concepts by Commissioners Leo Trunt and Terry Snyder at the last meeting, and consultants Contegrity and Klein McCarthy Architects were asked to refine them and look at preliminary estimated costs. 

    Labeled “Blue” and “Orange,” the two new options expanded the courthouse footprint to the east. Orange essentially took the east half of the block including the Fire Hall, and Blue took the south half of the block, including the Miner (old Northprint) building.

    Both options increased jail space to 196 (Blue) or 206 (Orange) inmates, and added two (Blue) or one (Orange) secure courtrooms.  

    Tim Thompson from the Department of Corrections pointed out that Orange was much more efficient, requiring 8 fewer staff to supervise. He also approved of a plan to let the county jail professionals do the internal design and said that bringing the DOC into the discussion early would help expedite approval of the plans.

    The commissioner discussion included the importance of fixing the roof, providing ADA accessibility and satisfying court needs.  The three most important concerns of the district court were security, adding an arraignment and regular courtroom, and ADA accessibility.  Commissioner Burl Ives asked about future expansion; whether floors could be added vertically.  The current design would limit this, due to the use of skylights instead of windows.

    After the discussion, the board voted to discontinue the east expansion option and also the Blue west expansion option. Consultants were asked to add costs for finishing a second courtroom in the Orange option. Things will change, commented Commissioner Davin Tinquist, within options as the process moves forward.

    The options for the outreach meetings to the public will be Orange (the west expansion which eliminates the Fire Hall) and a greensite.  The greensite may allow departments to be relocated to make more efficient use of county buildings. The cost if the county does not build a new jail will also be presented. The consultants were asked to provide an “apple to apple” comparison of features and costs for presentation to the public. 

   

Public input

    The following are highlights of comments:

    • LaNea Johnson: Suggested livestreaming outreach meetings on Facebook.  

    • John Casper: Thanked board for increasing transparency.

    • Molly Randall: Discussed grant opportunities that have been explored and ways to reduce costs.

 

    The next Jail Committee meeting will take place on Thursday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in the courthouse.

DAV Christmas Party

January 09, 2020

By Don Basista

 

    Itasca County Chapter 13 of the Disabled American Veterans had its annual Christmas Party. In trying to find our how many parties had been held, many didn’t know except to say that they have been coming every year.

    World War II Combat Veteran, Harley Kiger said, “I have been coming to the Christmas Party since I can remember, and in 1950, I was on the committee for the party.”

    Current DAV Commander Ted James from Blackberry said, “We are a veterans’ organization established to help other veterans. We do this by raising funds, having a bingo booth at the county fair, and having a clothing collection program with two green boxes at L&M parking lot, two at Super One South Store, and one at the gas station on County Road 63, one at fire departments in Coleraine, Deer River and Nashwauk, and we have a buyer who purchases the clothing.”

    The DAV meets once a month on the fourth Tuesday at the Itasca County Courthouse. 153 Veterans and their families attended the Christmas party that was provided by the DAV Chapter 13, along with putting together care packages consisting of electric razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, long sleeve tee shirts, women’s tank tops, and jigsaw puzzle along with gift cards to Dairy Queen, Subway, and McDonald’s, that were given to disabled veterans homes in Minneapolis, Silver Bay, Hastings and Laverne.

   Representatives from the Veterans Homes attended the Party and received a $500 gift package for their residents, which total 684 veteran residents. After social hour, Gary DeHart gave a prayer, followed by Commander James calling out “Attention” to the veterans, and as they stood rendering the hand salute and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. That was followed by a buffet dinner consisting of roast beef, chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables and pie a la mode.

Jail Committee selects alternatives to consider

December 26, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The second meeting of the Itasca County Jail Committee looked at background sizing information, developing a timeline, scheduling town hall meetings, reviewing alternatives developed by commissioners and payment options for a new facility.

 

Sizing

    Jail Administrator Lucas Thompson provided background and discussion on sizing a new jail. New jail designs which arrange cells into circular pods instead of a linear hallway are much more efficient, allowing one staff to 60 inmates instead of the current one staff to 25 inmates. The total staff is now 30; with new designs, a much larger jail could be staffed with just 6-8 more hires.

    Efficiency in staffing is important, Thompson said. Staffing is much more expensive than construction over the 30 year life of a jail; contributing about 63 percent of the cost while construction contributes only 10 percent, maintenance 18 percent and inmate care 9 percent. 

    The Jail Task Force had recommended building for 200 beds, which translates to about 175 beds to be considered “full” according to rules which require some of the capacity to remain open. If the jail were designed for 140 beds, for example, it would open at capacity. A larger jail could also be flexible; closing unneeded pods to save staff or creating temporary revenue by accepting inmates from other locations. However, “never design a jail to make money,” said Thompson. It could generate revenue at first, but that will go away, he said.

    In response to a question from Commissioner Burl Ives, Thompson estimated 170 to 180 beds would be a minimum size, understanding that housing out inmates still may be needed 3 to 4 months of the year.

Timeline

    Larry Filippi of construction manager Contegrity suggested that a site should be chosen by mid-February or earlier in order to have walls up by the sunset date of Sept. 21, 2021 specified by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. His timeline included 9 to 11 months for preparation of construction documents.

    Ives pointed out that the project needs to be presented at the state legislature by Jan. 15, to keep a sales tax open as a funding option.

 

Town Hall meetings

    Town hall meetings have been scheduled by commissioners on Feb. 13 (Marcell), March 16 (Warba), March 23 (Coleraine) and April 1 (Bovey). These and other meetings will be advertised in media outlets, the WATTS News and the county website. Presentation material including pricing should be available at these meetings.

 

Alternatives to be considered

    Two new concepts for remodeling and expanding the courthouse at the present downtown site were presented by Commissioner Leo Trunt and Commissioners Snyder and DeNucci. Both expand west across NE First Ave. and into the next block. The board directed Contegrity and architect Klein McCarthy to develop concepts and pricing for these separately or as one blended option, with an additional estimate for possible underground parking. The remodel (expanding to the east) and green site options from the Jail Task Force Report, which already have pricing and concept drawings, will be the other alternatives considered.

    Design alternatives with costing were requested for the Jan. 16 Jail Committee meeting.

 

Payment options

    The board directed the county administrator and auditor to prepare paperwork to request a preauthorization from the legislature for a local sales tax. If the state grants the request, a public referendum would be voted on in the November election. The other source of funds would be a bond resulting in an increase in property tax.

    Commissioner Ives reviewed the work of the Jail Task Force including locations considered and possible movement of county offices to free up properties that could be sold to offset some cost. Tax forfeited land could be sold, also. He pointed out, however, that locations outside of Grand Rapids for the courthouse would also move the county seat.

 

Public input

    The following points were made during public comments:

    • LaNea Johnson: Could there be a community planning committee to parallel the jail committee?

    • John Casper: Will the commissioners commit to a referendum on any financing option presented?

    • Tary Edington: Taxpayers are responsible for all the costs of a jail; follow Lucas Thompson’s analysis to prioritize staffing as a major cost.

    • Nick Schuler: Have property owners in the project zone been asked if they would sell?

    • John Casper: Option was presented at another meeting of cutting one percent from the budget to help finance the jail.

    Commissioner Snyder summarized the meeting, saying that the board is dedicated to find any source of revenue that might buy down the cost. “Every nickel is going to count,” he said. “We’ll be as diligent as we can.”

Heliene breathes new life into Range solar plant

July 25, 2019

By Kitty Mayo

 

    The story of solar photovoltaic module production in Mountain Iron, Minn. has entered a new chapter this year with Ontario-based Heliene revitalizing a plant started there in 2011.

    The Mountain Iron facility was built and operated originally by Silicon Energy with high hopes of energizing the region’s economy at the beginning of a new era of renewable energy. Those hopes faltered as Silicon struggled to make a go of it, and by 2015 Heliene began contract manufacturing there.

    Ultimately, Heliene took over operations in 2017, and in 2018 the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation board (IRRR), along with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), gave loans totaling $3.5 million. The loan was split equally between IRRR and the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

    Matt Sjoberg, director of business development for IRRR, said despite other failures in the solar panel business, the IRRR has faith in Heliene’s efforts.

    “They are up and running with more people working there now and they are making more panels than the prior tenant ever made. We are very happy to have found another company that would use that facility for what it was constructed for, with the added bonus of a much higher production capacity,” said Sjoberg.

    Currently the only solar module or solar panel manufacturer in Minnesota, Heliene has the full support of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA).

    Liz Lucente, MnSEIA communications director and general counsel, believes the ongoing demand for solar is not slowing and could give rise to more manufacturers moving into the state.

    Looking back, Lucente said legislation called “Made in Minnesota” was a robust policy giving rise to several solar module manufacturers in the state. 

    “A couple years ago there were four or five solar manufacturers here and when that program ended they all eventually shut their doors, with some of them moving out of state. It was disheartening,” Lucente said.

    According to MnSEIA, Heliene is filling a booming demand with a total of about 1,000 megawatts of solar installations underway, and a full half of that being community solar projects.

    Currently running with nearly 70 employees, the company hopes to continue to add staff within the next couple of months.

    An extremely strong year in 2017 is what prompted Heliene to expand into Minnesota permanently, then the tariffs of 2018 and the affected Chinese market with higher prices for solar component parts brought a very tough year.

    Despite fluctuations in the solar industry, Scott Mclorie, Heliene’s vice president of sales and business development, said the future for solar remains bright with very high demand, especially in Minnesota, but also across the country.

    “Regardless of policy, by and large the fundamental economic case for solar nationwide is very strong and that allows us as a North American manufacturer to grow,” said Mclorie.

    He said the perceived labor costs savings in a more rural location are not very evident, with competition from the mines bringing those up. However, he noted the welcoming atmosphere across the board in Mountain Iron and Minnesota from governmental agencies had the strongest pull.

    “The largest advantage had been that the region and state have been extremely supportive as our partners in diversification of the economy and adding another set of skills to the area,” Mclorie said. The second advantage in Mountain Iron has been an intact, trained workforce.

    “There was a workforce in place there from the previous plant and the city wanted to continue with solar manufacturing, being able to keep incredibly talented key personnel definitely played a part in driving us to committing to this area,” he said.

    Cautious growth seems to be the byword for Heliene’s success. Starting with its main office and original factory in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 2010, the move to Minnesota was a measured one that happened in phases.

    “This market is so fast-paced that manufacturers have to respond and be reactionary in a challenging environment. Now the market has jumped back up and we are running full bore at Mountain Iron,” Mclorie said.

    Despite overseas manufacturers having the advantage of low cost of capital, Mclorie said Heliene’s competitive advantage lies in working smarter, not harder.

    “It is challenging, but we compete by having better logistics costs, and a much smaller sales organization that forms close partnerships with developers and installers,” he said.

    Even with the recent fall in global solar module prices, Heliene’s production calendar is nearly full for 2019 going into 2020. Nonetheless, ongoing uncertainty over how the application of additional tariffs will be applied is a cause for concern.

    “In the last six months our market has been challenged by the current administration’s tariffs, and the latest tariffs have still had an exemption for a certain number of cells imported to assist in supporting domestic production. Now there has been a walk-back on the safeguard of cells and a lack of clarity on how these things will be enforced and we are struggling with how that applies to us. It’s always easier to do business when you know the rules,” said Mclorie.

Itasca County Board closes out some road projects and awards new contracts

July 22, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Itasca County Board met on Tuesday, July 9 with all commissioners present except Commissioner Terry Snyder. There was no citizen input.

    Tom Suppes of the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, a risk management pool, updated the board on the functions and operations of the trust. With 450 members, the trust services 81 of the 87 counties in Minnesota as well as other public organizations such as soil and water districts. The trust covers property/casualty and worker’s compensation claims (although Itasca County is self-funded for the latter). It also advises on risk mitigation, trains employees and elected officials, provides educational materials and runs an employee assistance program used by almost 10 percent of Itasca County employees in 2018. The county received a dividend of $89,286 from the trust in 2018.

    Crissy Krebs presented a Business Division update for Health and Human Services, with annual budget vs. current actual for financial, public health and social services. As of mid-year, revenues stand at $13.1 million (after receipt of the June 30 levy allotment), and expenses at $11.6 million. Noted was that chemical dependency costs are on pace for $1.2 million annually, well in excess of budgeted amount. 

    Dan Swenson and Commissioner Davin Tinquist sought a resolution of support for the Mississippi Headwaters Board updated comprehensive plan. The revised plan gives more authority to the eight counties, according to Swenson, who also noted that while Lake Winnibigoshish is considered a headwaters lake, Pokegama is not. Commissioner Burl Ives expressed concern about loss of tax capacity along the corridor. The resolution was approved. 

    In other business, the board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $2,070,015.33.

    • Recognized new employee Linette Welshinger (Sheriff’s Office).

    • Approved purchase of a new high speed printer for the Treasurer’s Department for $11,434.99

    • Awarded CR 340 Bridge removal/culvert replacements to William J. Schwartz and Sons for $173,985.20.

    • Awarded CSAH 93 (formerly CR 227) grading, aggregate base and bituminous work to Gladen Construction for $1,381,887.00.

    • Approved final payments on CSAH 13, CR 141, CR 253 and CSAH 45 (grading and base) road projects.

    • Entered into a cooperative construction agreement with Marcell Township to make safety repairs on a township bridge.

    • Recognized the 100th anniversary of the Farm Bureau in Itasca County.

    The board held a closed session to discuss the ERP Iron bankruptcy.

    The next regular meeting of the Itasca County Board is on Tuesday, July 23 at 2:30 p.m. in the Itasca County Board Room.

Annual Take A Kid Fishing held in Marcell

June 28, 2019

The U.S. Forest Service sponsored the annual Take A Kid Fishing on June 15 at the Marcell Visitors Center. The Bigfork Lions Club prepared and served lunch to approximately 40 children and their families. Activities included: fish painting, minnow races, fishing pole casting contest, fishing from the pier, and a boat safety talk. The children all received trinkets and fishing supplies provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office.

North Itasca Electric holds annual meeting, seeks director candidates from District 4 (Scenic area)

June 20, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    North Itasca Electric Cooperative, which provides power to northern Itasca and southern Koochiching counties, held its annual meeting on Thursday, June 13 with a pork loin dinner at the Marcell Family Center. 

    A moment of silence started the meeting for two directors who passed away during the year: Terry Schmitz, District 8 (Marcell) and Jim Cox, District 4 (Scenic area). Both had served as chair during their tenures.

    Incumbent directors Bruce Leino, District 7 (Squaw Lake area) and Roy Bain, District 9 (Bowstring area) were re-elected. Jeff Kilian was elected as a new director from District 8. A bylaw amendment regarding arbitration was also passed by the membership.

    During the meeting, Chair Larry Salmela (District 3) spoke on the challenge of the times; transitioning to the renewable energy sources of wind and solar. It’s important, he said, to tell the whole story - not only the benefits of capturing free sources of energy, but also the cost of storing and using that energy.

    CEO Brad Dolinski recognized the dedication of the cooperative team he works with and the success of the cooperative’s energy supplier Great River Energy. He spoke on the emphasis North Itasca Electric has put on safety during the year. Major projects during the coming year were reviewed.

    The District 4 position will be chosen by the board of directors from interested members residing in the district. The term will be until the next annual meeting election in 2020. Candidate packets should be picked up at the headquarters building in Bigfork and returned by Tuesday, June 25.

National Scenic Byway Highway 38 restoration project completion celebrated

June 13, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    It was a story of a major and historic road that would take many detours and 30 years to restore.  But in the end, according to Luke Skarlupka, Deer River district ranger for the Chippewa National Forest, it became a modern multi-use road that retained its characteristics and scenic integrity.   Across the board, he said, it was a win-win.

    He was speaking at the celebration of the completion of Highway 38 on June 8 in Bigfork, a project that began with a formation of a local leadership board in the 1990s.  Then, in 1996 it was one of the early recipients of the National Scenic Byway designation through the efforts of Congressman Oberstar.

    Tary Edington of the leadership board spoke on the sometimes challenging history of the highway restoration, which winds between Effie and Grand Rapids. A historically important road to bring products to northern Itasca County and bring timber south to markets, the highway has always been a key transportation route.  Yet, it was difficult to mobilize agencies to move forward to prioritize it.  He credited the Chippewa National Forest in rallying resources to come around a planning effort.

 

    Over the years the budget would change.  Itasca County Commissioner Terry Snyder pointed out that there were many, many hours of discussion among stakeholders and the public about what was important.  Once, to drive a point home, he recalled bringing an influential politician up the road in an empty logging truck during breakup.  He was a little green, said Snyder, but understood the need.

    “There was so much that went into this project,” said past Mayor Amy Pifher, “and MnDOT did an awesome job.”  Minnesota Department of Transportation Assistant District Engineer Michael Kalnbach in turn thanked the leadership board for its commitment to transportation and keeping everyone on task.  There was a lot of disruption, working around things like mail deliveries and daily travel to jobs. There were both complaints and kudos.  That last doesn’t happen very often, he joked; “I wanted to mention that.”

    Congratulations also came from Congressman Pete Stauber and from Sen. Tomassoni.  

    The project may be complete, but now the maintenance begins.  There are five planned future resurfacing projects on the schedule, Kalnbach said.  In 2023, the Bigfork city portion would be addressed.  The highway near Marcell would be worked on in 2024.  In 2025, it would be the portion between county roads 49 and 19, in 2027 between Bigfork and Effie and in 2029 between County Road 49 and Grand Rapids.

Walz, Legislature reach budget deal

May 23, 2019

BusinessNorth Report

 

    Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman announced a bipartisan state budget agreement that allows for investments in education, health care, and community prosperity, Walz said in a Monday news release. 

    “In one of the only divided governments in the country, I am proud that we came together across party lines to put together a budget that will improve the lives of Minnesotans,” Walz said. “While compromise means everyone doesn’t get everything they want, this budget allows for meaningful investments in education, health care, and community prosperity. We set out to show Minnesotans that divided government can work. Now I want to set out to show them we can do it better.”

    “The budget agreement represents a wise use of state tax dollars – funding key state priorities while protecting Minnesota taxpayers and Minnesota employers,” Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon said in a prepared statement. “The agreement made important strides in keeping Minnesota affordable to raise families and for businesses to grow jobs.” 

    “Significant negotiating and compromises were made, which is a positive signal that divided government can work and can get good work done. We will continue working closely with the Legislature and governor’s office to finalize key policy items in these bills and to help ensure our business climate is competitive.”

    The governor’s office released highlights of the accord. Included in the final agreement will be:

    1. $59.51 million for Broadband, Agriculture and Housing

    • $40 million for broadband in FY20/21 only.

    • $4.51 million in FY20/21 and $3.9 million in FY22/23 for agriculture.

    • $15 million in FY20/21 and $10 million in FY22/23 for housing.

    2. $540 million for E-12 Education

    • General education formula increase of two percent and two percent.

    • Tribal Contract School Funding $3.536 million in FY20/21 and $4.670 million in FY22/23.

    3. $10 million for Economic Development

    • $11 million in revenue from unclaimed property in FY20/21 and $22 million in FY22/23.

    4. $13.78 million for Environment

    • Funding to address chronic wasting disease including funding for Department of Natural Resources and Board of Animal Health.

    • Aquatic Invasive Species surcharge of $10.60 to protect our lakes and waterways.

    5. $357.85 million for Health and Human Services

    • Increased spending offset by Health Care Access Fund (HCAF) resources of $270 million in FY20/21 and $514 million in FY22/23 and $142 million from the Premium Security Account in FY20/21.

    • All savings need to be substantiated and based on sound assumptions or backed by contingent appropriations.

    • No reduction to Department of Health funding in HCAF.

    • Creation of Blue Ribbon Council to identify $100 million in savings in FY22/23 and provide recommendations for legislative action. Any savings not implemented by the legislature will be backfilled by a contingent transfer from the budget reserve.

    6. $150 million for Higher Education

    • No reduction to University of Minnesota funding in HCAF.

    7. $125 million for Public Safety

    8. $63.37 million for State Government

    • $20 million for cyber security funding.

    • Funding increase for Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund (MERF) moved to tax bill. Base for MERF retained in state government target.

    9. $93.45 million for Transportation

    • Funding for Metro Mobility in FY20 is $23.190 million. Additional $13 million in FY21 for Metro Mobility contingent upon closing balance for FY19 exceeding February forecast estimated closing balance.

    • $13 million for Deputy Registrar reimbursement.

    • $55.67 million for the MnLARS replacement system; and fees for DVS staffing and systems maintenance and operation.

    • $20 million for Disaster Assistance Contingency Account appropriation contingent upon closing balance for FY19 exceeding February forecast estimated closing balance.

    10. Taxes

    • Zero target in tax bill FY20/21 and FY22/23.

    • Include $20 million for MERF per biennium.

    • Middle class tax cuts of .25 to the second tier rate starting in tax year 2019 and reduction of the CI levy (Senate proposal). House Chair and Commissioner negotiate an equivalent amount of general fund tax expenditures and spending.

    11. Bonding

    • Debt service for $440 million General Obligation Bonds.

    • Debt service for $60 million Housing Infrastructure Bonds.

    12. $30.85 million for Vulnerable Adults

 

Other Agreements

    • $491.367 million from the budget reserve in FY22/23.

    • No savings that cannot be substantiated.

    • 1.8 percent Health Care Provider Tax effective for gross revenues received after December 31, 2019. No carve out, all categories, no sunset.

    • Reinsurance for two additional plan years.

    “All Minnesotans deserve affordable, accessible health care. I’m pleased our budget compromise preserves funding for our Health Care Access Fund, ensuring Minnesotans – especially people with low incomes or disabilities – can count on the care they need. This shouldn’t be considered a partisan victory, but rather a basic reflection of our values in this state. In regards to access, quality, and cost, we’ll keep working to improve health care for Minnesotans,” said Rep. Jen Schultz (DFL – Duluth), Chair of the House Long-Term Care Division.

    Rep. Liz Olson (DFL – Duluth), House Majority Whip, added: “Minnesotans care about each other and want to see everyone share in our success and this session I’ve been working to ensure they can. I’m proud that this budget agreement increases investments in all students and protects health care for Minnesotans. By no means is our work over, and I’ll keep fighting for a brighter future for Minnesotans.”

Calumet officials move forward with water, sewer project

April 27, 2019

    At last week’s Calumet City Council meeting, Civil Engineer Jon Loye was back in town to assist city officials on moving forward on this year’s million-dollar sewer and water project in the South East Quadrant. 

    The replacement of pipes under the alleys between 6th and 7th avenues as well as the pipes under the alleys between 7th and 8th avenues will be accomplished from Morgan to the ball park street. The alleys will be repaved. Repaving is scheduled on 7th Avenue from Gary Street to the east end and 8th Avenue from Gary to Morgan. 

    City officials allocated another $90,000 to rebuild the lift station where the pumps will be replaced and the holding tank will be relined. Loye divided the cost of the project at 35 percent being repaving, 34 percent to replace water mains and 31 percent will go to sanitary sewer. The construction cost is projected to be slightly over $800,000 with a 15 percent contingency. Engineering could cost as much as $190,000 and that will depend on any problems encountered during construction. 

    A resolution was initiated and Clerk April Serich took a roll call to approve the final bid from Casper Construction. Construction should begin after May 15.

    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to approve an authorization for construction services from TKDA Engineering.

    • Voted to Donate $150 to the Greenway Day of Caring. 

    • Approved a fence permit.

    • Agreed to send Mayor John Tuorila to the League of Minnesota Cities annual meeting this year.

    • Approved a building permit.

    • Agreed to spend $85 to rent a handicap accessible portable toilet.

    • Processed seven shut-off notices for the month.

    • Approved the AT&T request to place a standby generator at the Radio Tower.

    • Voted to add a third surveillance camera at the Radio Tower site.

Survey: Jobs, healthcare top list of local priorities

April 11, 2019

    Opinions and perceptions of Minnesotans are as varied as the landscape, according to the Rural Pulse 2019 survey of more than 1,500 residents recently released by Blandin Foundation. A companion study of the perspectives of 300 Itasca County area residents also was released in early April.

    Jobs that pay a living wage, access to affordable healthcare and childcare and concerns about opioids and drug abuse are shared across Minnesota’s communities—complex issues very much alive today at local, state and national levels. The strength and relative priority of these concerns depends, though, upon geography, income, gender, age and other factors.

    Rural Pulse, which has tracked such perspectives since 1998, specifically looks at what local issues residents say are most important and how their communities and the state are performing in addressing them. For example, in recent years, the study identified persistent economic frustration among Minnesota’s rural residents that had been underestimated and underreported as metro areas experienced booming post-recession growth.

    According to the 2019 survey taken in late January through early February this year, a third of both urban (31 percent) and rural (38 percent) residents polled continue to say metropolitan needs are more important to elected officials than those of rural communities. Notably, rural women (41 percent) and rural community leaders who are graduates of Blandin’s leadership training programs (64 percent), believe this to be true. Itasca County area residents feel strongly, too, with 44 percent of those surveyed here saying that metro needs seem to be more important to legislators than rural ones. 

The Economy 

    Among the wealth of data generated by the Rural Pulse survey, themes continue to arise related to the economy. While one in three Minnesotans statewide report that the economy has improved over the past year, they may not be personally feeling it yet. Only 28 percent of rural and 33 percent of urban Minnesotans reported their household income increased over the past year. 

    Over time, the Itasca County area has stood out among Rural Pulse data. The 2019 study is particularly notable when it comes to economic issues. For example: 

    • More than half (56 percent) of Itasca area residents report the local economy has stayed the same compared to a year ago; 22 percent feel it has improved since last year.

    • Compared to 36 percent among those in rural communities statewide, 54 percent of Itasca area residents feel their community does not provide an adequate number of living-wage jobs.

    • Four in 10 (41 percent) Itasca area residents do not feel their community successfully maintains or grows job opportunities, and 45 percent feel that their community is not doing a good job with economic development.

    • Only 17 percent of Itasca area residents say they saw a decline in their annual household income within the past year—down from 24 percent when surveyed in 2016. Nearly one-third (29 percent) saw an increase.

    Given a series of recent economic uncertainties, it is no surprise that Itasca area residents say that the availability of jobs is the most critical issue facing their community. In fact, jobs have been a top concern among Itasca residents since the community first was surveyed by Blandin Foundation in 1998.

    “Blandin Foundation invests in the Rural Pulse about every three years to provide a snapshot of how Minnesota is doing on issues that go straight to community health,” said Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO. “I see a tremendous amount of commitment, leadership and optimism in these results. And, yes, concern about the local economy that we all must work to address.”

 

Migration

    Another way that the Itasca area stands out in Rural Pulse data is the loyalty of its residents. Nearly all (87 percent) of current residents expect to live in the same community five years from now—five percent higher than rural as a whole. Still, 19 percent have considered moving to a metro area over the past two years, mostly (65%) for job opportunities.

    Interestingly, considerably more Minnesotans living in urban areas have considered moving to rural Minnesota, 2019 surveying indicates. Citing quality of life as the main motivating factor, 27 percent of those in urban areas say they have considered moving to a less-populated rural area in the past two years, up from 21 percent in 2016. 

 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

    New to the 2019 Rural Pulse survey are questions related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

    • Close to half (54 percent) of rural residents and 40 percent of Itasca area residents say they have at least some close friends of a different race or culture than themselves. 

    • When it comes to groups that may experience bias, discrimination or harassment in their community, most often mentioned by Itasca area residents were transgender individuals, those with drug or mental health issues, African Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants and gays/lesbians. 

    • Minnesotans – both urban and rural and across all demographics – give themselves high marks when standing up to hate or discrimination if they see it occur; 80 percent (and 82 percent of Itasca area residents) agree that people in their community can do this.

 

Leadership

    After a dip to 37 percent in 2016, Rural Pulse this year found that 56 percent of Itasca area residents have served in a community leadership role. Of those who have not, most (54 percent) say it’s because they don’t have enough time, but 42 percent say they definitely would consider serving if asked.

    Rural Pulse results are available at www.ruralpulse.org.

Bavarian Market Village seeks vendors

March 07, 2019

By Manja Holter

 

The town of Biwabik, Minn. is experimenting with a novel economic development project.

Opening this spring is the Bavarian Market Village, a cluster of wooden huts, each of which can be rented by entrepreneurs looking for a low-cost, low-risk option to develop and market test their products.

Coined a “business incubator system,” the four chalets will have a Bavarian design to match the town’s over-arching theme.  Ranging in size from 144 to 192 square feet, the sturdy structures will lack water and sewer hook-ups but will be insulated and wired to guarantee the potential for year-around utilization.

The project is spearheaded by the Biwabik Area Civic Association (BACA). Kim Sampson, BACA member and project coordinator, was inspired by similar projects launched in Muskegon, Mich. and Tionesta, Pa. 

She envisions a European-like outdoor market that will provide  a shopping experience along the city’s main street corridor. Aiming for the feel of a German Christmas market, the group of stores will be complemented by a gathering area with benches, picnic tables and a stage for performances.

Hoping to jolt the local economy Sampson said: “Some of the start-up businesses may outgrow their small space and expand into a brick and mortar storefront. Others may remain in the small space, and some may discontinue their business but with limited risk and losses.”

Sampson secured $5,000 from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and a $20,000 Culture and Tourism grant from Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation to make this project a reality. Fundraising efforts to procure matching dollars are underway. A private landowner provided use of the land for the chalets at a reduced price.

“Opening and operating a new retail shop can often be cost prohibitive due to the overhead required,” said Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner Mark Phillips. “However, retail is a needed component for local and tourism economies of our region. The market village creates an affordable and low risk way for local entrepreneurs to market test their products and services, while at the same time providing retail options to the public. Our agency invests in business and community development that strengthens our region. The Bavarian Market Village has great potential.”

The market is set to be open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on selected weekends in the fall and at the holidays. Options to extend the season into the winter months to capitalize on the nearby Giants Ridge ski tourism are still being explored. 

The BACA will manage the market and oversee the chalet lease agreements. Leases will be seasonal and while the specific amount is not yet determined, Sampson expects it will range from $2,000-$2,500 per year. It will include rent, utilities, a Wi-Fi connection and co-operative marketing. 

Sampson envisions a variety of potential business tenants, including artists, crafters and antique retailers. With Biwabik’s proximity to the Mesabi Trail she is hopeful a bike rental and repair shop will move into one of the chalets. Other business opportunities include clothing boutiques, souvenir shops or baked goods retailers.  

Construction of the first four chalets will be commissioned soon to guarantee a May opening. 

The entire Bavarian Market Village project will be rolled out in three phases. Phase one includes the construction of the first four sheds as well as the connecting deck. During phases two and three additional sheds will be erected, pending funding. 

According to Sampson, the track record for the pilot projects in Michigan and Pennsylvania is impressive. Tionesta, a town half the size of Biwabik with less tourism, currently has 12 chalets. Muskegon started with 11 chalets three years ago and is now up to 17. Both markets run at full capacity. What’s more, after their first year in Muskegon, three businesses expanded into brick and mortar stores.

“Approximately 5,000 cars per day drive on Biwabik’s main street,” Sampson said. “The market will have excellent exposure and be a tremendous asset to our downtown. In addition, Biwabik is part of Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Complete Streets program that will bring significant improvements to our corridor’s streets, sidewalks and parking in the year 2020. All of this is an exciting change for Biwabik.”

State seeks to block Essar from doing business here

February 05, 2019

BusinessNorth Report

 

    The administration of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is taking a much harder stance with Essar Global in connection with its new effort to control a potential mine development in Nashwauk.

    On Monday, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen said Minnesota is seeking to block Essar and its affiliates from doing any business with the state. That effort could prevent the India-based company from retaining mineral leases that are needed to extract ore from the Nashwauk site.

    “Governor Walz and Commissioner Strommen feel strongly that Essar’s past record demonstrates that it is not the caliber of business that should be doing business with the state,” DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said in an e-mail to BusinessNorth.

    Essar Steel Minnesota worked to develop the site for nearly 10 years before it sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016, leaving a partially constructed processing plant behind, along with unpaid vendors and governmental entities. Through a lengthy restructuring process, the assets came to be owned by Mesabi Metallics. In a twist that many feared might occur, Essar again entered the picture. On Jan. 7, it settled $260 million of Mesabi Metallics’ debt, potentially opening the door for renewed involvement with the project. That occurred three months after Mesabi claimed it had obtained financing from a global energy and commodities company called Mercuria. That deal was supposed to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, but no further announcements were made.

    “As you know, the DNR and the State of Minnesota have a long and troubled history in working with Essar and its affiliates. Essar repeatedly failed to meet the construction and production milestones contained in the state mineral leases, failed to pay contractors, currently has approximately $64 million in unpaid debt to Itasca County and the state, and ultimately drove the project into bankruptcy,” Strommen said in her letter to Mesabi Metallics’ CEO Gary Heasley. “In short, Essar proved itself over a period of years to be an unreliable partner with contractors, local governments, and the State. The DNR has no confidence that Essar, if it were to take any operational, management, oversight, or even investor role in the Mesabi Metallics project, would act in good faith to ensure timely construction and professional operation of the project. DNR’s goal remains unchanged-to ensure successful construction and operation of a mine, pellet plant, and value-added facility that, in combination, will make full use of this outstanding ore body for the benefit of K-12 education, the University of Minnesota system, and local communities.”

    The DNR has initiated the process of seeking “debarment” of EssarGlobal and any of its affiliates from doing business with the State of Minnesota, in accordance with Minnesota statutes, Strommen wrote. 

    Additionally, the DNR is reviewing whether Mesabi Metallics is in full compliance with its permits and current mineral lease requirements, she added.

    “DNR is also continuing to evaluate the sufficiency of all information provided by Mesabi to DNR and on which DNR relied upon for reinstatement of the leases in July 2018,” Strommen said.

    Based in Duluth, BusinessNorth is a sister publication to the Scenic Range NewsForum.

Hockey Day MN

January 24, 2019

One of the many photos taken at the frigid 2019 Hockey Day Minnesota. 

Bigfork City Council moves forward on softball field, sets Scenic Range NewsForum as legal newspaper

January 17, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Bigfork City Council met Tuesday, Jan. 8 with a full agenda. New mayor Bryan Boone and councilors David Mann, Drew Francisco and Paul Gustafson, and Clerk Angie Storlie were present. Councilor Ben Maxa was absent.

    In public comments, EOWSKI! coordinator Sarah Stone discussed the alternatives of grooming the River Walk Trail with both tracks for cross country skiers and packed snow surface available for walkers. Concerns were expressed about the suitability of packed snow surface for current users. EOWSKI! officials will assess the feasibility of plowing one side and grooming the other side of the hospital/church loop with Joe Zimmer, Bigfork public works supervisor. 

    Official appointments for 2019 were set, including naming Scenic Range NewsForum as the official publication for the city. 

    The possibility of allowing hunting in the city by an owner or tenant with a minimum acreage was discussed and will be brought up to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Department of Natural Resources regulations would still be enforced.

    Moving forward on the proposed softball field north of the storage units on Co. Rd. 14 was discussed. Funding through the gambling tax, donors and grants was suggested, with fencing and lights being major expenses. The goal is to have the field playable by next summer’s softball season. 

    In other business, the council:

    • Approved payment of claims in the amounts of $57,449.83 and $124,023.47. 

    • Scheduled new meeting dates and times beginning February 2019. Council meetings were set for the second Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting at 5:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month.

    • Set the use fees for the remodeled City Hall at $50 per day with $25 additional for use of the kitchen and a $50 damage/cleaning deposit. Existing regular users will continue at their current rate. Government and nonprofits will be at no charge.

    • Noted that as no bids for the excess birch flooring were received, the flooring will be offered as a donation to Bigfork High School.

    • Approved a purchase request by the Public Works Department for a 9 foot snow bucket for the Bobcat, primarily for airport use. 

    • Approved a reply to Bigfork Township’s letter regarding annexation of the Dollar General property.

    • Approved a computer board replacement for the main lift station generator in the amount of $2,087.50.

    Complete council minutes are posted on www.cityofbigfork.com. 

Johnson requests sheriff’s race recount

November 22, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    In the long, and many-storied road to the Itasca County sheriff’s election, Bryan Johnson has taken another turn in his campaign: He’s asking for a recount.

    Johnson filed paperwork with the county requesting a recount last week, a move that could require him to pay for the recount out of his own pocket.

    LaNea Johnson, Johnson’s wife and assistant to his campaign, says that it was a decision that their family and friends were solidly behind.

    “It’s a decision that we wouldn’t have gone forth with if we didn’t feel like it’s a possibility that Bryan could come out the winner,” stated LaNea Johnson.

    Separated by just 219 votes in the final tally, incumbent sheriff Vic Johnson was declared the winner.

    Vicky Martin, elections administrator for Itasca County, says that before any recount the state canvass of results must occur, and that’s scheduled for Nov. 27. 

    “After that anyone with less than a 100 vote difference, or less than half a percent difference in votes can request a recount that is publicly funded. For those that don’t make that criteria they can request a recount at their own cost,” stated Martin.

    The Minnesota House District 5A recount, which covers three counties has been scheduled by the Secretary of State’s office for Dec. 3.

    In the race for the District 5A seat DFL candidate John Persell led by eight votes ahead of Republican incumbent Representative Matt Bliss.

    Martin says that she has scheduled Johnson’s recount for Dec. 10.

    When asked for a comment regarding the recount, incumbent Sheriff Vic Williams only wanted to show his support for how the election was run.

    “I think the integrity of our voting system is very good and our election officials are highly regarded,” Williams said.

    According to Secretary of State spokesperson Ben Petok, since the recount for District 5A includes multiple counties, including a portion of Itasca, that recount will happen out of the state office. The Itasca County Sheriff election recount will be facilitated by the Itasca County Auditor’s Office.

    “We’ve put a lot into this and human error is always a potential,” LaNea Johnson said. 

Sheriff’s race takes another unexpected turn

November 01, 2018

By Kitty Mayo

 

    The race to the Itasca County sheriff position has managed to develop yet another complexity in a competition that has been notably marked with contention and controversy.

    The Grand Rapids Herald-Review reported this week that they received a forensics report from an unnamed source alleging that Bryan Johnson had engaged in inappropriate use of a county-issued cell phone while he was in the employ of the Itasca County Sheriff’s Department. Forum Communications also has picked up the story and also stated the report was received from an unnamed outside source. The report alleges that Johnson’s former county-issued phone contained numerous sexually explicit images, videos and messages. 

    According to news sources, Johnson and his representatives have denied the allegations, suggesting the images could have been planted after the fact or downloaded by a previous user of the phone.

    The newly surfaced report is the latest development in a series of contentious events that have been a distinctive feature of this year’s sheriff’s race.

    Johnson worked as a sheriff’s deputy for Itasca County for 16 years, and is currently running against the incumbent Vic Williams for the sheriff position. Johnson also ran against Williams in his 2014 campaign for the same seat.

    An arbitration decision in September found that Williams had “just cause” for terminating Johnson from his deputy sheriff position. The 2017 firing stemmed from two instances of inaccurate time card entries totalling 12 hours.

    Johnson has staunchly denied any wrongdoing on his part, and contends that the action taken against him has been retaliation by Williams for opposing him as a candidate, as well as acting as a witness in an ongoing whistleblower lawsuit.

    That arbitration decision is being challenged by Johnson, with his AFSCME union staff attorney, Theresa Joppa, requesting an appeal based on what she calls “egregious errors” by the arbitrator.

    Protesters calling for investigation into the misappropriation of funds by the county, and specifically the sheriff’s department, gathered at the Itasca County courthouse earlier this month as well. The crowd also indicated they were there in support of sheriff’s deputy Michael Bliss who had just won a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office regarding his termination in 2016. Bliss was reinstated to his position in the same year.

    David Hanson, Beltrami County attorney, told the newspaper that he was only able to confirm that he had received a report from Soldo Consulting Group, and that he was reviewing it, but was unable to make any comment.

    In cases where law enforcement is investigated, it is standard operating procedure that a neighboring county would take over monitoring that to avoid any conflict of interest.

    A phone interview with Johnson revealed that he was interested in telling his side of the story, but for the most part was deferring to his union attorney.

    Johnson did say that there were explanations for the allegations about his cell phone, and that he believes he is purposely being made to look bad to the public. 

    “I haven’t even seen my phone in two years, and the things they are talking about are not like everybody thinks,” Johnson stated.

    According to Johnson, who specifically denies sending any inappropriate texts to people that he worked with, this is another attempt to derail his campaign.

    “This is $20,000 spent on this attorney by the county to make me look bad and I don’t even work for the sheriff’s department anymore, why are they pursuing this unless it’s to try to stop me from winning the election?” Johnson stated, referring to the Soldo Consulting Group attorney, Michelle Soldo, and the county’s payments to her for investigating the charges leading up to his arbitration as well as this recent report.

    Joppa cited Minnesota state statutes that she interprets to mean that public release of this report at this time was in violation of employee data privacy laws.

    “That is not public data under state statute, and if a data breach happened the entity responsible for the report has to notify the personnel and investigate that breach under statute,” Joppa stated.

    Other than the fact that a complaint has been filed, Joppa says that personnel data from public entities, such as a county, can’t be released until a full disposition and discipline has taken place.

    Joppa also stated that two other employees were also interviewed regarding the cell phone issue.

    “These employees that are the subject of this report have a right to challenge its accuracy before it’s distributed, it’s not fair to drag these other people into this,” Joppa said.

    Stating that in representing the union her job is to protect the privacy of its member’s data, Joppa also said that the report would likely have been made public eventually, but she believes that should have happened only after the parties involved had the opportunity to dispute the claims.

    In a statement on his Facebook page, Johnson added that similar cell phone allegations were brought up during his previous arbitration, but that they were not ultimately part of the findings in that case.

    “When I was put on administrative leave in early 2017 for the time card error, I turned over my cell phone and even my password to be fully transparent. I had nothing to hide,” Johnson wrote.

    With only days to go until Nov. 6, Johnson is continuing on with his election campaign.

Cliffs undeterred by state’s refusal to address its Nashwauk plan

September 20, 2018

By Ron Brochu

 

    Lourenco Goncalves isn’t a business executive who minces words. The chairman, president and chief executive of Cleveland-Cliffs was blunt at a 75-minute news conference Friday when he questioned why Minnesota officials won’t issue a permit to mine deposits the company controls near Nashwauk.

    “The land is mine and I want my freaking permit,” he said while visiting United Taconite in Forbes. 

    Because Department of Natural Resources executives won’t issue one, or even explain their position, they are being sued by Cliffs. Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration is negotiating with other firms – which have no track record on the Iron Range, to take over the former Essar Steel Minnesota development. Dayton announced their interest on Tuesday but was forced to eat crow a day later when he learned Essar – which failed to pay dozens of contractors – was among them.

    “I get great support from mayors, from unions and from Rick Nolan,” Goncalves said, noting that Dayton and State Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni have ignored Cliffs, even though the corporation has money immediately available to fund a mining/processing project.

    “Where is Sen. Tom Bakk hiding these days? What is Sen. Tomassoni doing these days?” Goncalves asked rhetorically. “Vote Bakk out. Vote Tomassoni Out.”

    BusinessNorth, a sister publication to this newspaper, was unable to reach the state senators for comment.

    Although Goncalves declined to speculate why state officials are ignoring Cliffs’ interest, he noted that Dayton told him that an earlier Cliffs proposal didn’t offer enough. Although it included a hot briquetted iron (HBI) plant, a taconite pellet plant wasn’t in the plan. Other companies offered both but delivered neither. Cliffs went on to begin construction of the HBI facility in Toledo, Ohio.

    “I only made the deal in Toledo after I was denied Nashwauk,” he said.

    Goncalves said he can’t wait forever for Minnesota officials to support his proposal. Public corporations are required to spend excess profits on infrastructure or return it to shareholders as a dividend. But he indicated he will wait until after the gubernatorial election.

    “He’s like Hurricane Florence – it’s bad for awhile and then it goes away,” Goncalves said about Dayton.

Highway 38 detour to end Friday

September 13, 2018

    The Highway 38 detour will officially end on Friday, Sept. 14, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

    The $8 million project to replace culverts and resurface the National Scenic Byway between Pughole Lake and Marcell had required a lengthy detour since the project began on May 14. 

    The end of the detour comes in time for visitors to travel the highway during the Bargains Are Great annual 47 mile garage sale event on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15 and 16. 

    Travelers are cautioned to watch for construction along the road as the project is completed.

After 13 years, stolen Ruby Slippers recovered

September 06, 2018

SRNF Report

 

    A pair of the famous Ruby Slippers worn by actress Judy Garland in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz” have been found after being stolen in 2005.

    The famous shoes were on loan from a private collector to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids when they were stolen in late August of 2005.

    Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement authorities held a press conference in Minneapolis announcing the recovery of the shoes, which had been insured for $1 million at the time of the theft. The FBI reported that it has several suspects in the case but they are seeking the public’s help in identifying all who were involved. 

    Jill Sanborn, Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis Division of the FBI, and Christopher Myers, United States Attorney for the District of North Dakota, announced Tuesday that the shoes were seized in a sting operation conducted in Minneapolis earlier this summer.

    Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson noted that the recovery of the Ruby Slippers was part of a 13-year investigation that never ended. “The Grand Rapids Police Department followed up on every lead we received,” he said. 

    Johnson told reporters at Tuesday’s press conference that a break in the case came several months ago when a more “credible” tip surfaced. That tip led to an out of state connection, which triggered FBI involvement.

    Authorities described the case as an active investigation.

    “While the FBI has identified suspects and has executed multiple search warrants in Minnesota and Florida in connection with the investigation, investigators are seeking the public’s help to identify all parties associated with the initial theft and the more recent scheme to defraud and extort the Markel Corporation, the owner of the slippers,” reported the FBI in a news release.

    Anyone with information surrounding the theft or the extortion plot is encouraged to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324) or submit information via the FBI’s website at tips.fbi.gov. Tips can be anonymous.

    There are four known remaining pairs of Ruby Slippers in existence – those recently recovered by police, a pair housed in the Smithsonian Museum, a pair located in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Museum and a pair owned by a private collector.

Cliffs will back off from Hibbing Taconite management role

January 01, 2020

    Cleveland-Cliffs won’t continue its role as manager of the Hibbing Taconite mine and processing plant beginning one year from now. It has given its partners a one-year notice of its resignation effective Aug. 12, 2019.

    Cliffs is a partner in the 42-year-old mine and processing plant, owning 23 percent. A subsidiary of ArcelorMittal owns 62 percent and a subsidiary of U.S. Steel owns 15 percent. The mine’s rated annual capacity is 8 million tons. It’s supply of ore, however, is expected to be depleted in seven or eight years.

    Spokesperson Pat Persico said the ownership stakes will not change as a result of the decision, and Cliffs will continue to take its share of taconite pellets from the facility.

    The company has not explained why it is pulling back from its management role.

    Separately, Cliffs has outlined some preliminary plans for its use of private mineral rights obtained from Glacier Park Iron Ore Properties near Nashwauk. Persico said the two business developments are unrelated.

Court sides with Nubai, dethrones Clarke at Chippewa Capital Partners

August 15, 2018

BusinessNorth Report

 

    A judge has prohibited Tom Clarke from claiming to be a leader of Chippewa Capital Partners or representing the company in any way.

     An order issued on Friday by U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz grants the preliminary injunction against Clarke that was sought by Nubai Global Investment Ltd. Clarke and Nubai disagree over who controls Chippewa, the company that successfully bid in a bankruptcy auction to restructure the partially developed assets in Nashwauk formerly controlled by Essar Steel Minnesota, which eventually came to be known as Mesabi Metallics. 

     “We are pleased that the court ruled in favour of Nubai Global Investment Limited and issued an Order on the terms that we had requested,” Nubai, a large investor in the Chippewa project, said in a news release. “With the unnecessary and needless distractions of the last few weeks now clearly addressed by the Courts, we can now re-focus our efforts on the Mesabi project.”

     Among the distractions was Clarke’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing for the ERP Iron Ore (ERPI) project. Like Chippewa, Clarke purchased Magnetation in a bankruptcy auction. But his firm, ERPI, was unable to restart the mining operation in Grand Rapids or the iron ore processing plant in Reynolds, Ind. Clarke’s overarching plan was to combine the ERPI and Chippewa operations. 

     Now, the affairs of both companies are tied up in legal disputes involving Clarke and other litigants. After Clarke was removed as CEO, Nubai named Gary Heasley as interim CEO to direct Chippewa’s Minnesota team, including construction and other business activities, as the principals had originally planned. 

     As recently as Aug. 8, Clarke has said he remained in charge and blamed Nubai for the ongoing management disputes. In a court document, he said, “I am aware that your ‘investors’ have already contributed approximately US $159 million to Mesabi through Chippewa, however, Nubai’s failure to meets its contractual obligations and contribute the additional US $91,447,257.47 by the required deadlines has deprived Chippewa and Mesabi of the funds they require to continue operations, and now endangers both your investors’ past investments and the future of the Mesabi project.” Terms of the contracts have not been released by the court, and the court has prohibited Clarke from making that information public.

    Beyond his removal from the executive team, Clarke has been prohibited from using any of Chippewa’s or Mesabi’s offices, premises, computers or communication systems without the consent of Nubai and also from selling any interest in Chippewa or Mesabi.

Child care shortage reaches crisis levels

August 08, 2018

By Beth Bily

    The availability of affordable child care in the region is gaining traction among key stakeholders as a major economic development issue and several regional organizations are pooling resources to address the problem.

    According to information from First Children’s Finance, an organization that provides financial and business assistance to childcare providers offering services to low and middle-income families, the lack of childcare in the state of Minnesota has become an obstacle to effectively growing rural economies. Programs offered by the organization include financial assistance, business training, business development, community consulting as well as online resources.

    In its 2016 study, “A Quiet Crisis: Minnesota’s Child Care Shortage,” the Center for Rural Policy outlined the problem as one with many causes:

    • A rapid decline in home-based child care. While child care centers have increased to fill some of the gap, in rural Minnesota there was a net loss of 15,377 child care spaces from 2006 to 2015. During that same period, the Twin Cities metro area experienced an overall 3,284 increase in child care spots.

    • Salaries and wages in the child care industry are a “huge deterrent,” with more than 85 percent of those employed making less than $20,000 annually.

    • Low income households and single parent families are particularly hard hit by the shortage, with child care costs absorbing a much larger percentage of their income. 

    • In rural areas, it’s more difficult for child care providers to raise prices due to a lack of clients able and/or willing to pay the increased cost.

    • As the job market has become more competitive, the lack of child care spots in rural areas has been a deterrent to job seekers, who instead opt for positions in the Twin Cities where child care is more available.

    Area stakeholders are well-aware of the problem. 

    “Having quality childcare available is an absolute imperative,” said Sonja Merrild, the Blandin Foundation’s director of grants. “We have heard this call for some time from our community.”

    To that end, the Blandin Foundation recently awarded grant funding to First Children’s Finance to launch a child care resource business center that will provide assistance to organizations across the Iron Range looking to create or expand childcare options. The organization already has worked with officials in Itasca County to assess its needs and is in the process of working with key players in the Quad Cities area. 

    While some might question why childcare centers need their own business support mechanisms, advocates, like Merrild, call the business “surprisingly complex.” 

    Issues arise around mandated child to worker ratios, recruiting needed workers that are increasingly in short supply and a large volume of regulations that must be adhered to.

    Northland Foundation Vice President/Director of KIDS PLUS Lynn Haglin added that those who enter the industry may not necessarily have all the tools they need to be successful. “People go into it (child care) because that’s where their heart is, but they may not be as aware of the associated business aspects.”

    The Blandin Foundation Board of Trustees recently approved a $195,000 grant over a three-year period to fund the development of resources locally, while the Northland Foundation has contributed $33,333 this year and will revisit providing additional funding at a future date. 

    The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board also has allocated funds toward addressing the child care shortage, said Communications Specialist Sheryl Kochevar. The IRRRB provided $20,000 in FY18 to the United Way for child care technical assistance; $11,667 to the Northland Foundation for a child care business study; $175,000 for internal and external and HVAC upgrades to Bright Minds Academy Daycare in Eveleth; and, $260,000 for infrastructure, site work and wetland mitigation for the Mountain Iron Childcare Facility Project.

    Work to expand the availability of child care in northeastern Minnesota is part of a broader statewide effort. Elsewhere in the state, the Minnesota Initiatives Foundations have partnered with First Children’s Finance to cover child care training costs and make that training locally accessible. 

    These efforts, said Haglin, are vital to the overall economic health of this region. “It’s (lack of child care) reaching a crisis point,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to come up with new solutions and we need the business community to come to the table.”

    The Center for Rural Policy Development has identified the shortage in the Arrowhead region as particularly troubling. Here, the 9,102 available child care spot capacity is falling short of need by nearly 5,000 spaces. The child care industry needs to grow 55 percent to meet the shortfall – the highest level of regional growth needed in the state.

    Further assessment of the issue is on the near horizon. The Northland Foundation, Blandin Foundation and IRRRB are jointly funding a study through Wilder Research on the economic impact of the childcare shortage in the seven county Arrowhead Region. The completed study is expected to be released in either late August or September, said Haglin.

Minnesota, Wisconsin employment reach record highs

July 26, 2018

BusinessNorth Report

 

    Minnesota employers added 6,600 jobs in June, according to seasonally adjusted figures released last Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

    The number of people employed in Wisconsin as well as the number of active participants in the state’s labor force reached record highs in June, and the data showed that Wisconsin gained both total non-farm (+7,400) and private-sector (+5,500) jobs from May 2018 to June, and a significant 17,600 manufacturing jobs over the year, according to the Department of Workforce Development (WDWD).

 

Minnesota

    DEED said May’s employment figures were revised from 10,200 jobs gained to 10,700 jobs gained. During the past year, Minnesota employers have added 45,517 jobs, a growth rate of 1.5 percent. The U.S. growth rate during that period was 1.7 percent, DEED said in a news release.

    Minnesota now has a seasonally adjusted total of 2,962,300 jobs statewide, the most in state history. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate held steady at 3.1 percent in June. The U.S. unemployment rate was 4 percent, the agency said.

    “Minnesota gained 17,300 jobs over the past two months, the state’s strongest growth spurt in more than a year,” said DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy. “Overall employment in the state is at a record level and continuing to grow, however, we must continue to invest in communities where job growth is not as strong.”

    Leisure and hospitality led all sectors with 2,700 new jobs last month, followed by manufacturing (up 2,000), construction (up 1,500), information (up 900), professional and business services (up 900), trade, transportation and utilities (up 600) and other services (up 200). Logging and mining held steady.

    Three sectors lost jobs: government (down 1,000), education and health services (down 600) and financial activities (down 600).

    Leisure and hospitality also added the most jobs over the past year with a gain of 13,728. Other industries adding jobs in the past 12 months were manufacturing (up 8,661), professional and business services (up 5,434), education and health services (up 5,143), trade, transportation and utilities (up 5,035), construction (up 4,744), government (up 4,137) and information (up 508).

    Other services (down 1,399), financial activities (down 386) and logging and mining (down 88) lost jobs over the past year.

    In the Metropolitan Statistical Areas, all five regions gained jobs over the past 12 months: Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA (up 2 percent), Duluth-Superior MSA (up 1.5 percent), Rochester MSA (up 0.2 percent), St. Cloud MSA (up 1.6 percent) and Mankato MSA (up 4.5 percent).

    DEED has added a section to its website that examines the unemployment rate by demographics (race, age and gender) and looks at alternative measures of unemployment. Minnesota’s black unemployment rate fell from 6.1 percent in May to 5.6 percent in June for yet another all-time low dating back to 2000. Minnesota’s Hispanic unemployment rate increased from 4.4 percent in May to 5.3 percent in June.

 

Wisconsin

    “Wisconsin continues to add jobs, which means more opportunities for Wisconsin job seekers,” said DWD Secretary Ray Allen. “Over 3,000 individuals entered the labor force from May 2018 to June, growing the pool of available workers to fill some of the 90,000-plus job openings available on JobCenterofWisconsin.com. Although the unemployment rate ticked up slightly from the record low rate of 2.8 percent that we experienced in April and May, it increased for the right reason – Wisconsinites are excited about the career opportunities that are being created by new and existing employers throughout the state and entering the labor force.” 

    The BLS uses three data sets to measure employment and unemployment:

    Current Employment Statistics (CES): compiled from a monthly survey sent to about 5,500 employers (3.5% of Wisconsin employers). CES data has been shown to be subject to significant revision. 

    Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS): compiled from a monthly survey of 985 households and unemployment insurance claims. Measures the labor force, employment, unemployment, and the unemployment rate. 

    Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW): compiled on a quarterly basis from Unemployment Insurance records from some 96 percent of Wisconsin business establishments.         Considered by most economists to be the most accurate measure of jobs, the QCEW includes data from almost all employers in Wisconsin.

    Other indicators of the state of Wisconsin’s economy include:

    Initial UI claims ended 2017 at their lowest level in the last 30 years.

    Continuing unemployment claims ended 2017 at their lowest level since 1973.

    Moody’s Investor Service upgraded the state’s credit rating, nothing that “The stable outlook reflects the expectation that the state will experience moderate economic growth and will continue its prudent fiscal management practices.”

ERP files for bankruptcy protection

July 19, 2018

BusinessNorth Report

 

    ERP Iron Ore of Grand Rapids has filed for bankruptcy protection in the District of Minnesota. The move comes three years after a predecessor company, Magnetation, declared bankruptcy on the same operation, in which iron is recovered from tailings.

     ERP purchased the former Magnetation assets in a Dec. 2016 bankruptcy auction and had planned to begin shipping new pellets later this year. But in recent weeks, it became evident ERP was experiencing financial problems. On May 19, four northern Minnesota companies filed an involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition against ERP saying they were owed nearly $5 million. Since then, several others have come forward including BNSF Railway Co., which said it is owed $11.9 million.

     “ERP has requested to convert the involuntary bankruptcy to a (Chapter 11) voluntary action in order to protect all creditors including all mechanic lienholders,” the company said in a document released Tuesday. 

     Claims in the statement released Tuesday by ERP, however, cannot be trusted, said the top executive of Cleveland-Cliffs, a competitor. The ERP statement references Mesabi Metallics Co. LLC, ERP’s sister company (formerly operated by Essar Steel Minnesota Inc.), which also was purchased in a bankruptcy auction.

    Entrepreneur Tom Clarke is a principal in both firms. The statement says Mesabi has committed to providing crude ore to Hibbing Taconite, which is managed and partly owned by Cliffs, “in order to extend the life of Hibbing Taconite and preserve Iron Range’ jobs. Tom Clarke has personally reached out to Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. CEO Lourenco Goncalves to provide crude ore to Hibbing Taconite.”

    Goncalves said he has never been contacted by Clarke and the claim is totally untrue.

     “He and I have never spoken,” said Goncalves, who also is board chair and president of Cliffs. “I don’t speak to anyone like Tom Clarke except in a court of law. He is a liar.”

    Goncalves has publicly criticized Clarke in the past, contending he lacks the financial resources to resurrect either the ERP or Mesabi facilities. The firms are engaged in an active lawsuit.

    “It’s important for the people of Minnesota to understand he lies with a straight face,” Goncalves said in an interview.

    Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it would withdraw mineral leases from ERP within 15 days unless rental payments are made. The bankruptcy action may put that decision in the hands of the bankruptcy court.

    Clarke was contacted late last week by BusinessNorth but did not return a phone call requesting comment.

     No other details are as yet on file with the court. Further updates on this story will be posted to our website: www.scenicrangenews.com as information becomes available.

Annual Ojibwe Pow-Wow

July 12, 2018

A group of Dancers along with their children pose for a photograph during a break at the Deer River Rice Festival Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Pow-Wow.

4th of July kid-style

July 05, 2018

The kids at Trout Lake Campground in Bovey participated in a parade on July 3 sporting their patriotic gear and celebrating July 4. The kids rode throughout the campground as proud parents took pictures. The parade was put on by Tom and Norma Greniger who took over the campground in 2015 and have since worked to make the area more kid friendly. 

Salmela Jewelers closes doors for good

June 29, 2018

By Manja Holter

 

    The signage was large, loud and all over the place at 1259 S. Pokegama Ave. in Grand Rapids, announcing the closing of a jewelry store that has been part of this community for more than 65 years.

    Everything must go. All inventory (most marked down by 70 percent), display cases, cash registers and office furniture. Not every item might carry an actual price tag, but Len Salmela, owner of Salmela Jewelers, was determined to get rid of his store in its entirety.

    That’s not to say that he doesn’t remember its beginnings fondly. 

    “My dad, Arthur, began as a watch maker. He served an apprenticeship at Schmidt Jewelers of Duluth in the 1940s. He opened up his own repair store in Deer River in 1950. It slowly evolved into a full-service jewelry store, which he moved to Grand Rapids in 1963. It was the weekend Kennedy was assassinated. We will always remember when he moved,” said Salmela.

    Grand Rapids already had six jewelry stores when his father moved the business to its first location there on Highway 2 downtown (now home of the MacRostie Art Center.)

    “Most jewelers at that time were watchmakers. In those days, everybody had a mechanical watch. The railroad guys, for example, all had to get them cleaned once a year. He went into a tough competitive situation and he managed to make it.”

    Len is one of six Salmela siblings. When his father passed away suddenly in 1983, he was the only one without a job, making him the obvious choice for taking over the business.

    As a former maintenance mechanic in the mines, he lacked the experience one acquires during a goldsmith or watch-maker apprenticeship. But Len was quick in closing that skills gap by picking up tricks of the trade from the store’s employees. 

    “I welded and brazed with a torch. It’s kind of the same thing on a smaller basis. It’s a little tiny gas torch instead of a big acetylene torch.”

    Following the expansion of Highway 2 and the subsequent loss of storefront parking, Salmela oversaw the company’s move to its final location at Pokegama Plaza in 1993. 

    One of Salmela’s specialties was the tune-up and repair of grandfather clocks all around the region and his services will be missed - not only by private customers but business partners as well.

    Cherie Frick, antique dealer and co-owner of Icecube Coins & Antiques in Remer, Minn. said; “Len has helped us resize rings, repair jewelry and estimate the worth of diamonds. He was always very reasonable, personable and easy to work with. I am sad to see him close his business. It’s a real loss for us because I will have to find another jeweler that I can trust the same way.”

    Salmela turns 65 this summer. The approach of the retirement age led to the decision to close the business.

    “My wife and I had decided 10 years ago that that was our target for retiring. I had hoped to sell the business and had a couple people who were interested. But everything ended up falling through. I had also made a conscious decision that if I didn’t sell it by a certain time I was going to do a ‘going-out-of-business’ sale because I didn’t want to be one of these people who keep the store open for another 10 years hoping to find a buyer. I wanted to be done.”

    Salmela’s four children are all working and living in the Metro area. 

    “They all have jobs that are more lucrative than tying yourself down to a family owned business,” he said.

    When asked about the challenges that independently owned, small town jewelry businesses are facing, Salmela lists the retention of reliable employees as well as the increase of online competition.

    “I would have never believed it. I always thought people will want to see a diamond or ring before they bought it. You wouldn’t believe the things that come in for resizing etc. We won’t dare touch it because it’s made so badly.”

    Darrel Pitts, a former jewelry store owner with 47 years of experience, who is helping Salmela during the sale, said: “The millennials rather buy on the Internet. But they then come in and want us to confirm that the price they paid was legit. When asked what they paid it is always close to what we estimate, even though the customers thought they’re getting a deal because it was priced at a supposed discount.”

    Twenty-five to 30 percent of Salmela’s revenue was generated through repair work. He employed two people who will need to find new positions.

    Salmela also estimates that the area supported around three jewelers on average for the past 15 years. The closing of his store presents Grand Rapids with a dramatic reduction of that industry’s presence in the downtown market.

    Last July, another Grand Rapids jewelry store, JB Kaiser, opted not to renew the lease for its prominent sale space at the Central Square Mall. Instead, owner Jeff Kaiser opened up a small studio at his private residence, located on 30265 Sunny Beach Road.

    He, too, states that the internet had a huge impact on his business model, which set out be an over-the-counter jewelry sales and repair store when he first opened up shop in 1984.

    “The choices that the consumer has today have been extended tremendously by the Internet. However, most of the vendors are not jewelers but simply marketers. They buy and often don’t even touch the item. They have no expertise in jewelry.”

Kaiser is a gemologist and goldsmith by trade, which allowed him to shift his revenue streams towards the niche market of custom jewelry design. 

    “I increased that side of my business by 75 percent in the last years. Primarily, I have customers coming in with an image of a piece of jewelry saying ‘I want exactly that, except...’ I can create whatever they want. Most people coming in either special order or ask for custom design. It is what I enjoy doing most.”

    By downsizing his business from 12 showcases to two and moving his shop into his home, Kaiser was able to radically cut down his overhead cost.

    Additionally, Kaiser adapted to the market by creating “JB-on-the-Go,” which is essentially a mobile jewelry store housed in a former ambulance truck. He offers a full line of jewelry services from this vehicle as well as “house-sitting” and “temping services” for independently owned jewelry stores whose owners need a fill-in while they are on vacation or in need of time off. 

    The business idea came to Kaiser during his time as owner of the shop at the mall, which never allowed him to take a leave of absence.

    A sentiment that is likely shared by Salmela. He, too, is excited to “not be tied down” and “travel for more than five days.”

    As Salmela transitions into retirement, he looks forward to “moving south”, not as in Arizona or Texas, but the Twin Cities area to spend time with his seven grandchildren.

    Salmela’s closed its doors for the last time on June, 23.

Hen House offers ‘five star’ antique experience

June 20, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    It’s a little country community in the middle of the woods, first seen as a glimpse of a cupola from the old Aurora school between vintage buildings.

    And then you are there, in the center of a whimsical and eclectic collection of antiques, crafts, garden ornaments, collectables and most of all, color. It’s a stroll-through village, and everything you see is for sale.

    It’s the creation of Kim and Tom Breiwick called the Five Star Hen House, and it is located about nine miles south of Bigfork (two miles south of Scenic State Park) on Scenic Highway 7. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on just seven weekends a year, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from early June through July 15, as well as the Wednesday and Thursday of the July 4 holiday. 

    There is a Hen House, originally a log cabin bunkhouse Tom built for the couple’s children. There is also a Bird House, two cupolas, a Garden House and Man Shed. Named for their theme, some have backstories. The Garden House, for instance, started life as a horse stable. 

    Living in Buffalo, Minn., the couple moved north to live full time at their cabin about 15 years ago while keeping weekday jobs in their professions. They both enjoy collecting: Kim has a special interest in tin wind-up toys and Tom is an expert on - and collector of - marbles. 

    They started to create a way to display their collectables for sale, and in 2014 opened it to the public. Each year it changes and grows a little bit larger, laughs Kim. The best part for her is the returning customers and the conversations in the many chairs placed around the lawn. 

    In 2015, they needed to expand and rented a gift shop just south of Bigfork on Highway 38 that they renamed the Picadilly. That location is open from April to December every weekend (Friday through Sunday) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Hen House retains most of the rustic items, but both locations have a mix of “everything anybody wants,” including glassware, signage, furniture, handcrafts, toys and much more. 

    Kim collects items from all over the state, and carries lines from individual Minnesota artisans and producers. On her shelves you can find jellies, sauces, pickles, signs, sewn items and her own soaps and caramels, as well as antiques. Kim also finds furniture that is refinished by Tom.

    When she puts together her displays, she tries to make little vignettes – pleasing to the eye but not necessarily things that normally go together. She wants to make sure, she says, that customers walk in to find something unique and not like many other stores they have visited.

    Her experience has given her a unique look at the market. This year she sees a trend away from Depression glass, she said. The new desirable collectable, she believes, is Fire King, especially bowls and hard to find items like goalongs (expandable bowl holders with handles). 

    But whatever is trending, there will likely be a sample of it in the extensive collections at the two locations. 

    The Five Star Hen House is located at 55420 Scenic Highway, Bigfork, and the Picadilly is located at 58284 State Hwy. 38, Bigfork. Kim can be reached on Facebook at Five Star Hen House, by email at kimshenhouse@arvig.net or by phone or text at (218) 910-0603.

Celebrating Wilderness Day