Bovey Police Chief recognized for life-saving actions

January 23, 2020

    At last week’s Bovey City Council Meeting, Bovey Police Chief Bill Hollom was met with a hero’s welcome after saving the life of a citizen. Paramedic Elisa Hughes of MEDS-1 Ambulance was at the meeting to give Chief Hollum a wall plaque as an award from MEDS-1 to honor his life-saving actions.

    Hughes described the event where Chief Hollom responded to an emergency call and found the victim of cardiac arrest who initially appeared deceased. Hollom performed a field assessment for vital signs and found a very faint pulse. At that point Chief Hollom initiated Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation and continued to perform the CPR until paramedics arrived on the scene. The victim was saved and Mayor Bob Stein commended MEDS-1 Ambulance for their service to the community.

    Guest speaker Lori Kangas-Olson asked council members for permission to use the third-floor ballroom as a temporary location for Boys and Girls Club activities next summer. The usual meeting place would have been the Greenway High School and the high school will be off-limits next summer due to a major construction project, said Kangas-Olson. Council members voted to approve the use of the Bovey City Hall for 12 weeks starting June 8, 2020 for the purpose of youth activities on two conditions. And those conditions being that they clean-up after themselves and allow dancing classes to proceed on schedule. 

    In a letter to the city council, Kangas-Olson wrote that the Boys and Girls Club hosts an average of 75 youth per day from K through 12th grade and they have recorded as many as 97 participants on a single day. Children enjoy a ratio of 15 kids to one support person and eight support staff members have already signed-on for the summer. Kangas-Olson indicated the cost of $10 per child and they rely on community support for this service.

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    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to approve all mayoral appointees for this year.

    • Received approval from the State of Minnesota for the Wellhead Protection Plan.

    • Agreed to send Tara DeGuiseppi to a clerk’s conference in March.

    • Approved an increase in the Fire Relief Fund.

    • Voted to allot $50,000 to the Trout Lake Fire Department for a new fire truck.

    • Appointed Bolton & Menk for the city’s civil engineering services.

    • Named the Scenic Range NewsForum as the city’s official newspaper. 

PolyMet announces new senior v.p., project director

January 09, 2020

BusinessNorth Report

 

    Poly Met Mining, Inc. announced Richard Lock, a veteran mining executive who has led construction and development of large copper and other mines around the globe, has joined the corporation as senior vice president and project director for the NorthMet Project.

    Lock most recently was construction director for the KAZ Minerals Peschanka open pit copper mine located in Russia, within the Arctic Circle. Previously, he held executive and project director roles at Arizona Mining Inc.’s Hermosa project, a lead-zinc-silver mine in southern Arizona; Yara International’s Dallol project, a sulfate of potash mining project in Ethiopia; Western Potash Corporation’s Milestone project, a potash solution mining project in Canada; and Rio Tinto’s Resolution and Keystone copper projects in Arizona and Utah, respectively. Earlier, he held leadership roles in the development of Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Horizon oilsands mining development in Alberta and Rio Tinto’s Diavik diamond mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

    “To secure the caliber of person with Mr. Lock’s experience, leadership and technical talents – where he has led some of the largest mining projects in the world – speaks to the NorthMet Project’s appeal as a fully permitted project within the world-class Duluth Complex, and the project’s tremendous potential as Minnesota’s first copper-nickel-precious metals mine,” said Jon Cherry, president and CEO. “We are very excited to have Richard on board and to further strengthen our leadership team.”

    Lock holds a Bachelor of Science degree from University College Cardiff in the U.K.

    In an unrelated development, Dennis Bartlett retired from the PolyMet board of directors, effective Dec. 31, for personal reasons. He joined the board in 2017.

    “We are grateful for the insightful guidance Mr. Bartlett’s experience contributed to the company. He has been a valuable member of the board and we wish him every success in his future endeavors,” said Ian L. Forrest, chairman.

Board updated on ISD 318 superintendent search

November 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In other business, the board:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Accepted statutory changes to Policy 611 on home schooling.

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.”

IRRR Board to consider Ely theater project, infrastructure projects

December 19, 2019

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    The Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is acting on funding to help support Ely’s historic State Theater.

 The nine-member IRRR Board on Thursday will consider recommending a $300,000 loan to a family of developers who have since 2014 been working to renovate the 83-year old downtown theater.

    Tanner Ott, his father John Ott, and Vicki Ott, of Alley A Realty, based in Columbia, Mo., are restoring the theater to its original condition. It operated from 1936 until 2008 when it closed in the midst of a recession. The loan would help bridge construction expenses as the renovation is completed. An operator will run the theater along with a manager and several part-time staff. 

    The board also considers:

    • A $125,000 loan to Stern Assembly Inc. for expansion of its rotational and thermoform molding operations in Hoyt Lakes.

    • An Iron Range Higher Education Account expenditure of up to $900,000 for creation of a Center of Excellence in Transportation at Hibbing Community College.

    • A grant of up to $250,000 to Education Innovation Partners Cooperative Center to increase regional connectivity, allow greater access to mental health issue aid, provide telepresence units and connectivity to North Homes and Range Mental Health, and increase ability to provide one-to-one mental health services for students in crisis. 

    • A $50,000 grant to the Iron Range Tourism Bureau to help establish a $100,000 Northern St. Louis County Trails Task Force fund to provide funding for existing heavy trail upgrades.

    • A $17,621 grant to the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission to assist in regional trails planning. 

    • An $85,000 grant to the city of Two Harbors to help fund a sanitary sewer monitoring station for Castle Danger Brewery.

    • An $85,000 grant to the city of Aitkin for phase three of the First Street Northwest improvement project.

    • A $65,000 grant to the city of Aitkin for redevelopment of the city park.

    • A $150,000 grant to the city of Aurora for anaerobic digestion system upgrades.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Biwabik for road construction and utility replacement of a segment of Highway 135 including Main Street.

    • An $88,000 grant to Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority for security and public safety fencing upgrades.

    • A $30,000 grant to the city of Chisholm to help the Northern Traxx ATV Club design and construct an ATV trail from Chisholm to Hibbing. 

    • A $63,400 grant to the city of Cook for a community center ADA compliant ramp, sidewalks and parking lot upgrades.

    • A $100,000 grant to Crane Lake Township to improve a Voyageur Country ATV Club trail. 

    • An $82,000 grant to the city of Cuyuna for construction of the single-track Cuyuna Connector and Cuyuna trails. 

    • An $190,000 grant to the city of Ely for phase two of a mountain bike trail at Hidden Valley Ski Area.

    • A $200,000 grant to the city of Ely for James Street water, sewer and storm sewer upgrades.

    • A $45,000 grant to Embarrass Township for visitor center ADA compliant bathroom house replacement.

    • A $210,000 grant to the city of Eveleth for water, sewer, storm sewer and road reconstruction on Garfield Street.

    • A $200,000 grant to Eveleth-Virginia Airport Authority for reconstruction of the south half of the existing aircraft parking apron.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Gilbert for total road reconstruction and utility replacement of a segment of Highway 37, including Main Street.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Grand Marais for total road reconstruction and utility replacement of a segment of Highway 61 including Main Street.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Grand Rapids for construction of a 10-foot wide bituminous trail along U.S. Highway 2 West.

    • A $300,000 grant to the city of Grand Rapids for wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

    • A $350,000 grant to the city of Hibbing for phase one development of an industrial recycling center on the north side of 25th Avenue West.

    • A $240,000 grant to the city of Hoyt Lakes for Suffolk and Andover streets road reconstruction.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of LaPrairie for Glenwood Acres infrastructure upgrades and expansion.

    • A $52,500 grant to the city of Meadowlands for storm water upgrades.

    • A $25,000 grant to Over the Hills Gang ATV Club near Emily for a 16-mile ATV trail connecting Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin counties.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Silver Bay for waste water treatment facility upgrades.

    • A $450,000 grant to St. Louis & Lake Counties Regional Railroad Authority for Mesabi Trail development.

    • A $60,000 grant to Superior Hiking Trail Association for the “Gooseberry Gap,” trail construction project.

    • A $250,000 grant to the city of Virginia for an ADA compliant facility upgrades at the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency.

    Taconite Economic Development Fund rebates of:

    • $682,024 to ArcelorMittal Minorca.

    • $1,913,180 to Hibbing Taconite Co.

    • $1,398,015 to Northshore Mining Co.

    • $991,169 to United Taconite

    • $908,797 to Keetac.

    • $3,331,402 to Minntac Mine.

Drilling by PolyMet reveals additional minerals

November 21, 2019

BusinessNorth Report

 

    Poly Met Mining announced this week that a drilling update has revealed its land holdings contain more minerals than previously revealed.

     Mineral Resources statements from 2018 and 2019 indicate proven and probable reserves increased by 14 percent to 290 million tons while measured and indicated resources increased by 22 percent to 795 million tons.

     “We are pleased with the improvements the drilling program delivered to our mineral resource, with an additional 177 million pounds of copper, 53 million pounds of nickel and 322,000 ounces of precious metals added to the Proven and Probable Reserve category,” President and CEO Jon Cherry said in a news release.

    “The drilling program outcomes are indicative of our tremendous NorthMet asset and the progress we continue to make with the project,” Cherry said. “With a fully permitted project, we remain in ongoing discussions with potential lenders about financing while we also continue to identify opportunities to optimize and deliver the project in the most economic way possible.”

    The results of drilling that commenced in the fourth quarter of 2018 and concluded in 2019 were used to convert material from the inferred category into the measured and indicated resource classes.

Bovey hires new police officer

November 14, 2019

    At last week’s Bovey City Council Meeting, Police Chief Bill Hollom introduced Officer Jeremy Johnson as a job candidate for the Bovey PD. After a short deliberation, council members voted to hire Officer Johnson. Chief Hollom also announced that calendar parking is now in effect for the duration of winter.

    Public Works Supervisor Kevin Odden reported inquiries about the city plowing sidewalks. Odden asked council members if it would be feasible to plow sidewalks in town.

    Bovey Councilor Nancilyn Meyer-Nail provided information on the city-wide celebration scheduled for Dec. 7. The celebration committee is actively seeking donations for the horse and carriage ride. The carriage ride will cost $350 for the first two hours and $75 per hour after two hours. In response, all council members donated their council paychecks for the month. 

    Meyer-Nail mentioned gift bags and events inside City Hall. Meyer-Nail and said they will be setting-up in City Hall on Nov. 6 and invited anyone with spare time to help prepare. Meyer-Nail also requested firewood for the warming tent.

    In other business, the council:

    • Set a precedent by allowing all meeting attendants to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as the first order of business. 

    • Voted to cancel the second City Council Meeting in November.

    • Reported that at this point, only one household is not hooked-up to utilities.

    • Released information on National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness week being Nov. 16-24, 2019.

Nashwauk intersection to have signage installed

October 17, 2019

    Beginning this week, crews will be installing signs that alert drivers of the upcoming intersection at Highway 169 and Highway 65 by Nashwauk.

    Signs will be installed along southbound Highway 169, warning drivers there is an intersection ahead and an advisory speed limit of 55 mile per hour. Flashing lights will be installed on the intersection ahead sign when they are available in about a month to six weeks. MnDOT will also be installing slippery bridge signs on northbound Highway 169 to warn drivers of slippery bridge conditions during the winter.

    This solution is a temporary solution while MnDOT works with the City of Nashwauk, Itasca County, business owners and other community members to determine the best permanent solution at the intersection.

    For real-time traffic and travel information in Minnesota, visit www.511mn.org.

Long-time forest products advocate dies following cancer battle

September 19, 2019

    Wayne E. Brandt, born Oct. 1, 1957, died in Duluth Sept. 12 just ahead of his 62nd birthday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, it was announced by Minnesota Forest Industries where he served as executive vice president.

    He was born in Minneapolis, raised in Willmar and moved to Duluth to attend UMD, from which he graduated.

    Brandt’s career was a mix of politics and advocacy, beginning as a campaign aide for Rep. Jim Oberstar. He also worked on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign and the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. 

    His career also included positions with the Seafarers International Union and for the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. He was best known for serving 30 years as executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Timber Producers Association (both based in Duluth), advocating for the forest products industry in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

    Brandt served on many forest-related boards and committees, including the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, to which he was appointed by Gov. Arne Carlson. He was still on the Council when he passed away.

    He was a member of First Lutheran Church and Ridgeview Country Club, and was a former member of the Spirit Mountain board of directors.

LaPrairie likely to scale back Saylor St. plans

September 12, 2019

    The LaPrairie City Council convened for its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3 when Mayor Jonathan Bolin started the meeting by having a conversation with City Engineer Jayson Newman regarding the city’s planned infrastructure project for 2020. 

    At the last council meeting, a public hearing was held to gather input from the public about the project. There was strong opposition to the planned improvements on Saylor Street while reaction to the improvements in the Glenwood addition were mixed. Bolin indicated that the council would likely scale back its plans on Saylor Street and would conduct a survey to assess the wants and needs of the residents in the Glenwood addition to assist in making a decision by the time the 2020 construction season arrives.

    City Clerk Lisa Mrnak announced that a utility trailer belonging to the city had been stolen. The matter was turned over to the city’s insurer but that the value of the trailer was determined to be less than the policy deductible.

    City Zoning Administrator Larry Curtiss said that enforcement of the city’s Zoning code was going fairly well but that there was still work to be done to address some complaints. He said that signs and tanks had been removed from RC’s, and the lawn was mowed. Curtiss reminded residents that there was to be no parking on the streets in LaPrairie. 

    In other business, the council:

    • Announced the water inspection fee from the Minnesota Department of Health will be increasing from $6.36 to $9.72 beginning January 1 of 2020.

    • Voted to donate $100 to the Greenway Area Community Fund to support the group’s Octoberfest celebration.

Grand Rapids City Council hears HRA update, accepts grant and donations

August 29, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At Monday’s meeting of the Grand Rapids City Council, Mayor Dale Adams spoke on four examples of going “above and beyond” in service to the community: promoting wellness in the city through Running the Rapids; the Pickleball Association and its September tournament; Jeff Davies, who retired after 33 years serving the city as director of public works; and Affinity Federal Credit Union which has adopted Maplewood Park and is donating money toward restoring the basketball court there. 

    Counselor Tasha Connelly also spoke on the IRA Civic Center Steering Committee, reporting that the committee meetings on improvements are well attended with healthy discussions. The IRA Civic Center will host the Thousand Lakes Fall Bonspiel on the weekend of Sept. 6-8.

    Diane Larson, interim executive director of the Grand Rapids Housing and Redevelopment Authority, provided an update on activities. The Grand Rapids HRA was created as a unit of government in 1966 and does not receive any local taxpayer funding. It is currently collocated with, and exploring a merger with, the Itasca County HRA which was created in 1972.

    The agency owns and operates the Crystal Lake Townhomes, pooled housing (LakeShore Place Apartments and Forest Park West) and 92 units of public housing. It is contributing toward the current housing studies for Grand Rapids, Cohasset, Bigfork and Nashwauk, which are expected to be complete in September with public presentations in October. It also is working on the Aurora Heights 56-unit development. A positive funding decision on Nov. 26 would trigger the project which would then be complete at the end of 2021.

    In response to a question, Larson said that “affordable housing” means that no more than 30 percent of income goes toward the cost of housing, including utilities. If it is more, the family is considered “cost burdened.” There are about 580,000 households in Minnesota which are cost burdened.

     In other business, the city council:

    • Approved claims of $1,533,098.10 for the period Aug. 6 to Aug. 19, 2019.

    • Accepted donations: In-kind donation valued at $510 from Waste Management for Tall Timber Days refuse service; $50 for the K-9 program from Robert and Leatha Lemen; $806.50 from Timberlake Lodge toward the Goalcrease hockey camp; $8,000 from AffinityPlus Federal Credit Union toward resurfacing the basketball and four-square court at Maplewood Park.

    • Accepted a grant of $39,150 for 2019-2020 Toward Zero Deaths campaign from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Dollars are shared with law enforcement in Itasca County, Bovey, Coleraine, Deer River, Nashwauk and Keewatin, and the Minnesota State Patrol.

    • Authorized selling six vehicles in the Sept. 7 Department of Natural Resources auction at the Grand Rapids DNR facility on Hwy. 2 east. 

    • Approved a change order in the Golf Course Road Utility Extension on Great River Acres for $2,760 to improve the seed mixture on turf reestablishment.

    • Adjusted employee rosters to remove non-returning employees and add short-term and part time employees on the Civic Center/Parks and Recreation and Golf Course department rosters, and adjusted some wages.

    • Authorized awarding the overlay for the Maplewood basketball court to Hawkinson Construction for $12,300. A former awardee did not complete the project in a timely manner.

    • Awarded the Horn Bridge joint sealing and deck surface maintenance to PCiRoads, LLC for $71,948. The project will start Sept. 9 and run for 3-4 weeks with lane closures.

Long-time forest products advocate dies following cancer battle

September 19, 2019

    Wayne E. Brandt, born Oct. 1, 1957, died in Duluth Sept. 12 just ahead of his 62nd birthday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, it was announced by Minnesota Forest Industries where he served as executive vice president.

    He was born in Minneapolis, raised in Willmar and moved to Duluth to attend UMD, from which he graduated.

    Brandt’s career was a mix of politics and advocacy, beginning as a campaign aide for Rep. Jim Oberstar. He also worked on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign and the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. 

    His career also included positions with the Seafarers International Union and for the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. He was best known for serving 30 years as executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Timber Producers Association (both based in Duluth), advocating for the forest products industry in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

    Brandt served on many forest-related boards and committees, including the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, to which he was appointed by Gov. Arne Carlson. He was still on the Council when he passed away.

    He was a member of First Lutheran Church and Ridgeview Country Club, and was a former member of the Spirit Mountain board of directors.

Bigfork Valley Hospital raises proposed levy to $700,000, Lamont new board member from Effie

August 15, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Bigfork Valley Board of Directors met on Tuesday, Aug. 6 for its regular board meeting with all directors present except Effie and Pomroy, both open seats. 

    Chair George Rounds brought forward the Finance Committee recommendation that the 2019 proposed levy request be set at $700,000, an 11 percent increase. Among the reasons he cited were an expected $144,000 increase in staff wages; upcoming replacement of the Villa roof, siding and windows; expected capital expenditures and spending on technology; and an audit result that the facility did not meet a required financial performance ratio for long term debt. Discussion centered on the orthopedic surgery and clinic contribution to the financials. Rounds said that the hospital would be proactive in communicating with the public. The proposed levy passed 11-1. The levy request will be finalized in December.

    Two presentations by Dan Heinecke, financial analyst on “Cost Report 101,” an explanation of the impact of the Medicare cost report, are scheduled at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Aug. 22 in the board room. The presentations are open to the public.

    Tom Lamont from Effie was present to answer questions from the board and was unanimously appointed to fill the vacant city of Effie board seat. He will be seated on the board in September. The position will be open in the 2020 election to complete the term expiring in 2022.

    A retirement reception for CNO Nancy Probst will be at 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30 at the hospital.

    Employee appreciation awards were authorized for Barb Rahier, Stephanie Bixby, Matt Niemala, Amanda Niemala, Nancy Probst and Meryl Ostendorf.

    In other business the board:

    • Approved the financial report showing net income at $247,273 for the month ending June 30, 2019 and a year-to-date loss of ($133,178). Responding to a question, CFO Christine Lokken said she expected a bottom line loss of a million dollars for 2019.

    • Heard that CliftonLarsonAllen is completing a Chargemaster review in anticipation of a proposed rule requiring hospitals to make public selected charges as negotiated with different payers. 

    • Credentialed four providers.

    • Heard summaries of the strategic plan visioning session and the MHA summer trustee meeting.

    • Authorized changes in policies to revert to state statute on allowing board members to attend meetings remotely and remove policy from bylaws, and add title “Director of Patient Care Services” to personnel policies in addition to CNO.

    The meeting was closed for discussion of pending litigation with Paul Bunyan Communications and its contractor. The next board meeting will be at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3.

Appeals Court upholds nonferrous mining rules for PolyMet

August 08, 2019

BusinessNorth

 

    Poly Met Mining, Inc, announced Monday that the Minnesota State Court of Appeals affirmed the validity of the state’s nonferrous mining rules, rejecting a challenge from environmental groups that sought to overturn the rules after the state issued PolyMet’s Permit to Mine.

    In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel recounted the history of the Department of Natural Resources’ nonferrous mining rules, emphasizing the decade of “study and rulemaking proceedings” that led to their adoption, PolyMet said in a news release. The court agreed with the DNR that “flexible reclamation rules are necessary to accommodate the variety of conditions at proposed mine sites” and endorsed the DNR’s authority to establish reclamation standards and “deny a permit … if reclamation standards cannot be met.”

    “Once again the Court of Appeals has upheld the strength and validity of the State of Minnesota’s regulatory and environmental review processes. Opponents of the PolyMet NorthMet project also recently tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Legislature to approve new legislation that would have had the same effect,” Jobs for Minnesota said in a written statement. “It’s unfortunate but true that investment in job-creating development projects in Minnesota today must involve calculating the costs and delays of inevitable legal challenges to regulatory decisions by well-financed opposition. Lawsuits, no matter how spurious, are now an intrinsic phase of the process, stretching out the time before people in the state can begin to experience the benefits from the project.”

    The case was filed in 2018 against the DNR by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. PolyMet intervened as a co-respondent to defend the rules.

    “We are pleased that the Court of Appeals ruled in our favor,” said Jon Cherry, president and CEO. “Minnesota’s standards for nonferrous mining are among the strictest anywhere in the world, and we demonstrated through the extensive environmental review and permitting process that we can meet or exceed these standards.”

Nashwauk mulls planning services

August 01, 2019

By Beth Bily

 

    The city of Nashwauk may employ outside help as it plans for its future and upcoming capital improvement projects.

    At the July 23 council meeting, officials heard from Mike Bubany, with David Drown and Associates, regarding planning services his firm offers to cities.

    Bubany said his firm develops, through its computer modeling programs, a roadmap for balancing projects with potential financing sources. Those can include bonding, savings, utility rates, levy or other sources. Many think project planning is just making a list, but that’s not the case, he said, because listing potential projects doesn’t address funding needs. 

    Using a recently completed study for Carlton, Bubany illustrated what such a study would look like for Nashwauk. A report would encompass factors such as the city’s incoming income, housing stock, population, debt to population ratios and tax spending by population. 

    “We have to know a little bit about ourselves to move forward,” Bubany told the council.

    Once a model has established where a city is at financially, then projects are added into projections.

    If approved by city officials, an initial report would encompass the years from 2019 – 2037. Both binder and electronic versions of the initial report would be made available to city officials with the potential to update periodically. Bubany said it takes a couple of months to complete an initial report once the green light is given by the council. 

    Councilors responded positively to the presentation. 

    “It’s important to know where we are now and where we want to go to,” said Councilor Greg Heyblom

    The council did not take action on the proposal, but rather deferred a decision to the next council meeting in August. 

    In other business, the council:

    • Approved the minutes of the July 9 council meeting.

    • Approved payment of claims in the amount of $41,381.08.

    • Tabled a resolution to amend the city’s rental ordinance to the next council meeting.

    • Approved a request from Nashwauk Market to close Deering Ave. from Second to Third streets for its second annual Ribfest on Aug. 3.

    • Tabled a decision on quarterly training for the ambulance service.

    • Appointed Thomas Matire as street and utilities lead worker, effective immediately.

    • Passed a motion to issue thanks to John Ketola, retiring street and utilities lead worker, for his years of service.

    • Approved the transfer of $4,000 from the police department forfeiture savings account to the general fund.

    • Approved the police department purchase of two firearms from Kiesler Police Supply in the amount of $2,660.

    • Approved the hire of a temporary full-time police officer from the city’s part-time roster.

    • Listened to the July 2019 EMS report from coordinator Tiffany Bodin.

Twin Metals proposes alternative tailings system

July 25, 2019

    Twin Metals Minnesota has announced plans to use the dry stack method to store leftover rock from its proposed underground copper-nickel mine nine miles southeast of Ely.

    The dry stack method eliminates the storage pond and dam associated with conventional tailings facilities, the nonferrous mining company said. It has been successfully used in four mines in the northern United States and Canada having similar climates and has been permitted at two mines in the western United States, Twin Metals said. 

    The process, according to company executives, involves removing target minerals and then compressing the remaining tailings into low-moisture, sand-like deposits that are stored on a lined ground facility near the plant site. Reclamation of the tailing site can occur in stages and can be capped or covered with natural vegetation.

    “Dry stack tailing storage is the most environmentally friendly tailings management approach for our site,” Kelly Osborne, Twin Metals Minnesota CEO, said in a news release. “The first key is that there’s no dam, no risk of dam failure. The moisture content of the filtered tailings is reduced to a material that we can compact and manage seasonally.

    “Because there’s no risk of a dam failure, dry stack is considered the best available technology for tailings storage and, after a decade of study and consultation with concerned voices in our community, we determined that it will be an effective choice for our project.”

    Community concerns about copper nickel mines have focused on fears of tailings dam failure or leaks that could threaten both nearby surface water and groundwater. Because there is no dam, risk of dam leakage or failure is eliminated, the company said. Equally important is the fact that the tailings from the Maturi Deposit will be non-acid-generating, Twin Metals added.

    “The common concern about sulfides points to a basic misconception about our project,” Osborne said. “The geology of the Maturi Deposit provides us with confidence that we can mine here safely and sustainably. The rock sandwiching the layer of copper, nickel and platinum group minerals in the deposit is almost completely free of sulfides. When the targeted minerals are removed during the concentration process and shipped to customers, only a minute amount of sulfides will remain in the tailings.”

    Extensive testing over the past decade shows that Maturi Deposit tailings will be non-acid-generating, according to the mining firm.

    Twin Metals said that dry stack tailings storage is often promoted by environmental groups as an alternative to conventional wet tailings as a way to protect water quality. It has been an option under consideration since Twin Metals began mine planning in 2010. As technology has continued to advance, and the application of dry stack in cold, wet climates has proven successful at multiple locations, Twin Metals said it made the decision to move to it as the best available option. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy hailed the advantages of dry stack tailings in a statement earlier this year. 

    “Dry stack is one of the ways we are making a 21st century mine that will be the most technologically advanced mine in Minnesota’s history and a model of how copper mining can be done safely and sustainably,” said Osborne.

    The approach will be outlined in detail in TMM’s Mine Plan of Operation, to be submitted to state and federal regulators in the coming months. Regulatory review, including hearings for public comment, will cover compliance with regulations to protect water and air quality, drinking water, wetlands, endangered species, plant life and cultural resources.

Grand Rapids City Council authorizes general obligation bonds for Great River Acres and Cohasset Connection Trail

July 22, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Grand Rapids City Council met on Monday, July 8 in the City Hall Council Chambers with all council members present except Mayor Dale Adams. Councilor Rick Blake acted as mayor pro tem in his absence. There were no public comments.

    The city council discussed funding for Great River Acres and the Cohasset Connection Trail. A total of $1,585,000 in general obligation bonds will be issued and added to $2,635,224 in prepaid assessments. $125,000 of the bonds are for the Cohasset Connection Trail project and will be financed through a tax abatement (dedicated property taxes) on parcel 91-592-0210, Grand Rapids Heath Care. A public hearing on this item was held; there were no comments. The general obligation bonds are for 15 years and will be awarded at the council meeting on Aug. 12 with an estimated closing date of Sept. 5, 2019. 

    The council listened to a student presentation on plastic use and persistence in the environment and passed a resolution supporting a plastic free day challenge encouraging residents to choose at least one day between July 7 and 15 to shop from reusable bags, drink from reusable bottles and not using plastic straws or utensils.

    The city agreed to convey lots for residential development within the 45 acre Great River Acres site, including 15 lots for single family housing and one lot for multi-family housing, to the Grand Rapids Economic Development Authority for marketing and sale. Assessments to cover site development expense by the city will be paid out of sale proceeds or negotiated to be paid by buyer. Sales will contain a right of reverter clause to ensure development within one year.

    A sculpture, “Pool,” by Aaron Squadroni and painted by Leah Yellowbird will be purchased for the Mississippi River pedestrian bridge for $18,400 and erected by Nov. 1. Half of the cost will be funded by a grant from AARP to Get Fit Itasca, the remainder coming from the Arts & Culture Capital Projects Account.

    In other business, the city council:

    • Approved claims of $1,110,791.07 for the period June 18 to July 1, 2019.

    • Accepted the final financial audit by Redpath and Company, which included financial statements, report on internal control, state legal compliance and the audit management letter. Grand Rapids has been awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting” by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada for the 26th year.

    • Approved a change order for additional dirt work to improve soils under the school building footprint on Great River Acres for $238,032.00 to be reimbursed by ISD 318.

    • Appointed Nathan Morlan to a newly merged position of Building Official/Building Maintenance Manager. Hiring an additional building maintenance worker was authorized.

    • Set Thursday, Aug. 29, 4-7 p.m. for a special work session on the budget.

    The next meeting of the Grand Rapids City Council is on Monday, July 22 at 5 p.m.

Annette announces retirement from Blandin Foundation

July 05, 2019

    Blandin Foundation President and CEO Kathy Annette informed the foundation’s trustees this week that she will retire in 2020 following a distinguished career in rural and Native community health and development.

     Dr. Annette has served as president and CEO for Blandin Foundation since 2011, following a career marked by various leadership roles with Indian Health Service. Prior to taking the helm at Blandin Foundation, she served the foundation as a trustee for 12 years, chaired and participated in its American Indian Advisory Committee, and participated in the first Blandin Reservation Community Leadership Program.

     “Kathy has been an important leader for Blandin Foundation and we’re pleased that she will be with us for one more year, making a thoughtful and smooth transition,” said Dr. Heidi Korstad, board chair. “It is a credit to Kathy that the foundation is ready for this change. We are in a great place—strong teams of staff and trustees, financially solid and with a clear strategic path forward. The board is very thankful for her stewardship and leadership, and we anticipate that Kathy will continue to provide this kind of impact through her final days as president and CEO early next summer.”

     A transition team of the Blandin Foundation board has been formed and a nationwide search will begin mid-July. Information on this recruitment process may be found at the foundation’s website as soon as it is available.

Line 3 plan gets mixed response in court ruling

June 28, 2019

By Ron Brochu

 

    The construction of a new Enbridge Line 3 is closer than ever, thanks to a series of recent Minnesota Court of Appeals rulings. The court rejected a series of arguments raised by opponents, but decided one requirement of the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was not met. It ruled the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission acted arbitrarily in advancing the FEIS.

    In 2016, the pipeline replacement plan went through a process called “scoping,” which outlines the “scope” to be covered in the FEIS. A significant issue raised by plaintiffs during that investigation was the potential impact a pipeline leak would have on Lake Superior. In its ruling, the court acknowledged that seven spill-modeling sites were chosen to represent a diversity of environmental conditions that might be impacted by a spill. 

    “Three of the sites are at separate locations on the Mississippi River; none of the sites are in the Lake Superior watershed,” the ruling said. The court noted a member of the PUC had asked why a site in the Lake Superior watershed was not analyzed, but the commission nonetheless determined that the FEIS was adequate. 

    “We agree with HTE (plaintiff Honor the Earth) that the commission’s decision is, in this regard, arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by substantial evidence,” the judges wrote in their opinion. 

    Enbridge has said the project is the largest in its history, costing $2.9-billion for the segment located in the United States. It is designed to replace existing 34-inch pipe with new 36-inch pipe for 13 miles in North Dakota, 337 miles in Minnesota, and 14 miles in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin portion was completed in 2018.

    The company expressed frustration with the Court of Appeals ruling.

    “We are disappointed with the court’s decision given that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) unanimously found the Line 3 Replacement Project’s 13,500 page FEIS adequate, based on the most extensive environmental study of a pipeline project in state history, affirming the recommendation of an administrative law judge who thoroughly reviewed the FEIS for adequacy. The FEIS is the product of a comprehensive interagency effort that included the environmental branch of the Department of Commerce (DOC), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Department of Natural Resources,” the company said.

    Enbridge indicated it is conducting a detailed analysis of the court’s decision and will consult with the MPUC and other state agencies about next steps.

    Meanwhile, state agencies are doing the same. In prepared statements, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said it will not release draft permits and the 401 water quality certification on July 1 as previously scheduled. 

    “This schedule adjustment will allow MPCA to consider the additional PUC environmental review analysis before initiating its public comment process,” MPCA said.

    Neither agency will take final action on the Line 3 Replacement license and permit applications until there is an approved EIS, MPCA said in a joint statement with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

    Project supporters gave a measured response.

    Better In Our Back Yard said it “encourages the State of Minnesota and its agencies to continue to move forward with the process to permit the Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Project, ensuring the safe transportation of crude oil across northern Minnesota.”

    Separately, Jobs for Minnesotans “calls upon the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) in conjunction with all involved state agencies to work expeditiously through the final steps of the review process and move the Line 3 Replacement Project forward to construction. As supporters of this project, we know there will be efforts to delay this project even further and we encourage the state to focus on the narrow review ordered by the Minnesota Court of Appeals to prevent more delays.

Coleraine City Council

June 20, 2019

    The Coleraine City Council operated probably for the last time from the public library where city officials voted to approve a Minnesota Historical Society Grant of $7,630 for the repair of City Hall. The grant will help offset the $9,530 charge from the Collaborative Design Group of Minneapolis for construction blueprints to facilitate the repair of the building’s exterior wall facing south as well as the reconstruction of the roof.

    Harry Bertram delivered a lengthy report where one beaver dam has been has been forcibly removed from Pear Lake. The Public Works Department determined that beaver dam mitigation is a joint responsibility between the City of Coleraine and Trout Lake Township. Bertram confirmed the fact that Public Works Employee Mike Anderson has passed the state exam for his Class D Water Plant License. Bertram said the new hot tar trailer works great, but he needs to find a source for coal tar mix. And large freeway signs are available from MNDOT for $1,500 each to mark the exits to Autumn Drive/County 440, Cotton Park Drive and possibly the Eagle Ridge Golf Course. Smaller signs must be approved by MNDOT.

    After the Coleraine Storm Retrofit Assessment in 2018 the clerk’s office released a statement describing the trial and tribulation of Trout Lake during the 20th Century due to the advancement of the mining industry. The assessment said 12 of the 15 sub-watersheds in town funnel storm water through Long Year Park and into Trout Lake. 

    In the aftermath of a downpour, any conceivable amount debris and chemical will be washed from the streets into the storm sewer and an unknown percentage of this residue will find its way to the lowest part of the system. The construction of containment basins, rain gardens and stormwater planters work to retain storm water and thus keep sediment and trash out of the lake, however, land needs to be sacrificed. 

    The Cotton Park Beach is now open for the season with seven new employees and without the raft. The relatively new raft, purchased from T and M Marine, was unstable and deemed a risk to public safety. The raft was taken out of service last year.

    In other business, the city council:

    • Learned that the quotes for the new floor in the kitchen and bathrooms of the Nyberg Center do not include the moving and repositioning of the kitchen equipment or the bathroom fixtures.

    • Received the new fine schedule where a golf-cart-on-the-street violation will cost $125 and a third blight violation would be $1,000.

    • Set the date of July 8 at 2 p.m. for the Brainstorming Work Session being led by Sarah Carling and will correlate with next city council meeting.

    • Debated the choice between rebuilding or patching the sidewalk in front of the post office.

    • Approved payment #2 for the CBT Force Main construction.

    • Learned that one reason the convection ovens at the Nyberg don’t get used is because the noise they make is roughly equivalent to a Saturn V Rocket.

IRRR board cites difficult years, borrows from Doug Johnson Fund

June 13, 2019

By Bill Hanna

 

    EVELETH — The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board has approved a $41.87 million Fiscal Year 2020 budget that draws $6 million from the agency’s corpus. 

    In addition, there’s a nearly $3 million carry forward surplus.

    The corpus money will be used for public works ($2 million), regional trails ($2.5 million) and Giants Ridge Recreation Area capital ($1.5 million).

    Interest from the corpus in the Douglas J. Johnson Trust Fund is traditionally used to help finance development projects to fulfill the agency’s mission of economic development to diversify the Iron Range economy.

    Accounting director Bob Scuffy said the corpus withdrawal will not be directly paid back. However, the corpus is still projected to see a $7 million gain in 2020 through regular taconite payments.

    Production taxes paid to the agency are expected to end the year at $14.8 million. The production tax revenues, calculated on a three-year average, are dollars paid in lieu of property taxes by mining companies.

    That will close the books on a “tough three years” (2016, 2017, 2018) for the agency, Scuffy said. 

    But that will change for the agency in Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1, when production tax receipts will be $18.7 million. And they are projected to increase to $26 million in 2021 and $28 million in 2022, Scuffy said.

    Commissioner Mark Phillips said the agency has been operating “very frugal to manage our way through some tough times.” Phillips said he doesn’t want to “erode the DJJ.”

    Board member Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said taking money from the corpus “is a tough issue.”

    “There could be some lean times coming. We don’t know. We must get our arms around spending,” he said.

    But board member Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said he wasn’t “afraid to use from the DJJ. That’s what it’s there for. I’m fine with the budget.”

    Board member Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Grand Rapids, looked confidently past the rough last few years.

    “As an agency, we need to be flexible and quick on our feet. I’m glad next year we won’t see $6 million going out of the corpus,” said the former commissioner under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

    The board also focused on financial concerns with the Giants Ridge Recreation Area, which fell $1.4 million shy of budgeted revenues for Fiscal Year 2019.

    The 2020 Giants Ridge budget is $11 million, which includes $1.5 million from the DJJ corpus.

    The skiing revenues held up, but the two golf courses did not. Winter kill was a problem on golf courses statewide, and the Legend and Quarry did not escape its effects.

    Layman, however, spoke of another problem with a more long-range impact that could be affecting Giants Ridge.

    “There’s been a significant drop in the number of golfers in the state,” she said.

    Phillips said it’s important to “drive the economic impact” of the Ridge, which he said is considerable.

    “I’m optimistic about Giants Ridge,” he said, adding that revenues look good so far this year.

    And, board member Rep. David Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, pointed out how important Giants Ridge has been to the economically-challenged east Range.

    “We are truly blessed to have Giants Ridge,” he said.

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

Repairs continue at Coleraine City Hall

May 23, 2019

    At last week’s Coleraine City Council meeting, City Clerk Briana Anderson said restoration crews have discarded the carpeting on the second floor of City Hall and are busy restoring the original wood floors. Council Members voted to approve the quotes to have the Nyberg Center kitchen and bathrooms refloored to match the rest of the flooring. The insurance company is not responsible to replace flooring for the rooms in the Nyberg that are separated with a door. 

    A concerned resident used the public comment portion of the meeting to ask why he can’t hook up to Paul Bunyan Cable for internet service. The man stated that his internet cable feed was down for three days, and subsequently, he lost several thousands of dollars in revenue. He said the Paul Bunyan cable runs right past his business. Councilors said they would check to see if the city of Coleraine has a franchise agreement with Savage Communications. 

    Public Works Supervisor Harry Bertram reported that the new hot tar kettle works great for repairing potholes in town and spring hydrant flushing is complete. Other noted news from Public Works included the updated software installed at the filter plant, which is up and running. Bertram stated that some of the curb stops in Birchwood are mislabeled and the contractor does not have the as-built maps to locate and identify the buried water and sewer pipes. Also, Bertram told councilors that vandals gained access to the roof of the old fire station and kicked-out some of the skylights. He said that the Bovey Police do have a suspect in the case.

    Mayor Dan Mandich issued a challenge to residents to join him in a bicycle ride around Coleraine. The convoy began at City Hall on Friday at 4 p.m.

    In other business, the council:

    • Voted to let Bertram hire students for mowing and weed removal. Potential summer hires must pass the drug test and have a back ground check.

    • Debated the cost of fire suppression equipment in the Nyberg kitchen be kept current in order to have the commercial kitchen rating with the state of Minnesota.

    • Suspended the meeting for nine minutes to hold a public hearing in response to a request for a zoning variance.

    • Learned that Hammerlund Construction is non-responsive to requests that punch list items be resolved at the T.L. Emergency Services Building.

    • Voted to authorize the first payment of $448,949.07 to the contractor to begin the Force Main project.

    • Voted to approve the property reclassification by Itasca County at 104 Morrison.

    • Agreed to make a formal request to have the City of Coleraine be represented on the Itasca Ski and Outing Club regulatory board.

    • Approved a new policy with the city web site with respect to third party internet links.

    • Learned that the Trout Lake Fire Department needs new recruits.

Firms are mining for young employees

April 27, 2019

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    Mining operations throughout the world are facing similar challenges.

    Changing commodity prices. Thinking globally. Digital-age security. Sustainability. Adequate water supply. And more.

    But the biggest issue is people.

    Attracting the workforce of the future is becoming one of the largest stumbling stones many mining companies face.

    “I think we’re at a bit of an existential crisis in mining,” Phil Hopwood, Deloitte global lead of mining and metals said at the 2019 Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration conference in Duluth. “The reality is in the next ten years a lot of people are going away (retiring) and there’s nobody to replace them.”

    A workforce shortage is nothing new for business and industry.

    Northeastern Minnesota’s mining companies and businesses for several years been having difficulty finding enough dependable, well-trained workers.

    However, in mining, the issue isn’t exclusive to just northeastern Minnesota, said Hopwood.

    And it’s mining companies which need to be a major part of the solution, he said

    “The mining industry is characterized by boom and bust cycles,” said Hopwood. “So it sacks people when prices go down. If the industry doesn’t produce jobs, they’re not going to be able to find employees.”

    Mining jobs are among the highest-paying in northeastern Minnesota and come with good benefits.

    But technology and equipment improvements mean that fewer employees are needed today to produce the same amount of tonnage as years ago.

    The boom and bust cycle, coupled with new technologies and a reduction in mining programs at higher education institutions across the nation, has mining officials concerned about who will become the miners of the future.

    “Mining schools are disappearing,” said Hugh Miller, SME national president. “There’s 14 mining schools left in the U.S. Not having enough (mining) professors is a big issue.” 

    The SME is working to show young people that mining is a solid occupation, said Miller.

    Nationally, the SME is making a push to make mining an attractive occupation by encouraging participation by young members. And over the last five years, more than 20,000 Mining in Society Boy Scout Merit Badges have been awarded to young people, said Miller.

    Currently, Minnesota’s mining industry looks solid.

    Northeastern Minnesota’s six taconite plants, which produce iron ore pellets used to make steel, are operating at capacity. Prices have stabilized and the industry is investing capital into its facilities, said Hopwood.

    “Iron ore prices are actually pretty good,” said Hopwood. “Eighty-five dollars a ton is what to look for because that’s when people want to bring on new capacity.”

    Beyond iron ore, copper production will become even more important as the United States moves toward more electric vehicles, said Hopwood.

    PolyMet Mining Corp., which would mine copper near the former LTV Steel Mining Co. facility at Hoyt Lakes, plans this year to begin plant development

    Europe, said Hopwood, is currently investing eight billion euro to build electric vehicle charging stations.

    “Electric vehicles are real,” said Hopwood. “The future is electric. If you want an electric vehicle, you’re going to have to have copper, but you also have to have a charging grid and you can’t power a grid with wind or hydro.”

    As mines seek out new employees, diversity is key, said Hopwood.

    BHP, a world-leading minerals company based in Melbourne, Australia, is moving toward a 50/50 ratio of female and male, employees, he said.

    “They want to get different thinking in the room and look at how they think as an organization,” said Hopwood. 

    Meanwhile, mining companies everywhere need to take steps to show young people that mining is an appealing occupation, he said. Offering flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and a renewed effort in mining education, is needed to attract more young people, said Hopwood. 

    “Very few mining companies have graduate programs where you bring in employees and give them undergraduate work,” said Hopwood. “The (mining) schools are not big anymore because the industry has not been forward thinking in seeing a future for the younger generations. The industry has to show it to be an attractive career.”

    The SME conference attracted about 1,000 mining professionals.

Roll out the red ore colored carpet

April 11, 2019

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    Phil Hopwood has spoken all over the world about mining trends.

    But this will be his first visit to northeastern Minnesota.

    Hopwood, global leader of mining and metals for Deloitte, a Canadian and Australian consulting, financial advisory, tax and risk management firm, is keynote speaker at the 2019 Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME) conference and trade show April 15-17 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

    “I will be there for two or three days, so I would like to get a look around,” said Hopwood, who will speak on global mining and metals trends for 2019. “You’re always really trying to figure out what’s really going on on the ground and find out from the people there what’s going on in the industry.”

    The annual conference and trade show attracts about 1,000 mining professionals, vendors and industry partners from across the United States and Canada. It’s billed as the No. 1 regional minerals conference in the Midwest.

    Over three days, the conference is filled with technical topics, educational presentations and opportunities to rub elbows with industry peers.

    Short courses, technical sessions, speakers and vendor exhibits which focus on technology, trends and innovations within the mineral industry, highlight the 92nd year of the Minnesota conference.

    “It’s a true reflection of the partnerships – the mining companies, the producers, the regulatory and governing agencies, the young professionals and students as well as the vendors who make up the success and support network for the industry,” said Julie Marinucci, Minnesota Section SME chair. “We’re expecting strong attendance. We’re seeing positive support from the industry, with the trade show, and in conference registration.”

    Overall, the conference is expected to exude a positive vibe. Northeastern Minnesota’s six iron ore pellet producers are operating at capacity rates.

    In 2018, the six taconite plants produced 38.5 million tons of pellets. A majority of the pellets are loaded into lake carriers in the Twin Ports and shipped to Great Lakes steel mills. Iron ore pellets are the primary ingredient used to make steel.

     And a new non-ferrous (non-iron) mining industry is ready to start digging in.

    In 2019, PolyMet Mining Corp. plans to begin construction of its $954 million copper-nickel mine and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes.

    “It’s a fantastic region,” said Hopwood. “Places like Minnesota are important to mining and will continue to be in the future. I’ve traveled a lot around the world and one of the joys of my job is to get to meet different people. By coming to Minnesota, I’m going to be able to tell people around the world that Minnesota is very much a mining jurisdiction.” 

    Hopwood says he’s “very bullish” on copper and nickel production, especially copper for its use in electric vehicles.

“The world needs more copper,” said Hopwood. “Mining these days is very different than it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago. It’s sustainable, responsible and engaged with stakeholders.”

    This year’s conference theme is “Mining for the Modern World.”

    Success in the modern era of mining must come by rapidly adapting to ever-evolving industry expectations, leveraging technology, embracing modernization in operations and sustainability, and considering new mineral possibilities to broaden beyond the roots of the Iron Range, according to a conference overview.

    “The mining industry in Minnesota is strong with the taconite producers hitting record production in 2018 and the growth and excitement about non-ferrous will be evident at the conference,” said Marinucci. “The 2019 program will feature programming that drives the impact of future mining and key industry leaders who will address growth and development.”

    Environmental stewardship is also a key topic. 

    “There’s definitely an emphasis on the environmental issues when doing a project,” said Kurt Doran, chair of the Northern Minnesota SME subsection. “Minnesota is at a point now where most of the decisions are based on environmental analysis and outcomes and I think most folks would probably say that’s a good thing. Minnesota really is in a unique spot right now in that we’re being held to a higher standard because of environmental concerns, but I think it’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity for us to set the bar high for the industry as a whole. Minnesota is blessed with a lot of minerals and a lot of clean water and I do think we’re in a unique spot where the environment and the mining industry can coincide and do so in a sustainable way.”

    The SME is a professional society of about 15,000 members in more than 100 countries.

    The national SME, headquartered in Englewood, Colo., oversees the conference. However, the Minnesota Section SME, which dates back to 1921, and the Northern Minnesota Subsection SME, organize key segments of the event.

    Scholarships totaling $12,000 to eight college students at SME student chapters at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Iron Range Engineering, and the University of Minnesota, will be awarded.

    Minnesota Section Scholarships of about $1,000 per year through the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation will also be awarded to undergraduate students who study engineering or geology. 

Mining’s impact on the state and region is immense. Northeastern Minnesota mining generates a statewide economic impact of more than $3 billion annually and supports more than 11,200 jobs, according to the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. 

    It’s ongoing impact in the Twin Ports is also significant.

During 2018, 21.5 million short tons, or 60 percent of the 35.9 million total short tons of cargo shipped from the Port of Duluth-Superior, was iron ore pellets.

    From a global perspective, mining in the United States is currently viewed positively, says Hopwood.

    “There’s a lot of interest in U.S. mining,” said Hopwood. “It’s up across the board. People like mining in the United States because of the (low) risk.”

    In northeastern Minnesota, mining will remain a foundation of the regional and state economy for years to come, said Doran.

    “Based on geologic reserves and predictions, we’re looking at another 200 years or more of mining in this region,” said Doran. “To me, we’re not even halfway through our mining district and that says a lot, I think.”

Speed limits to go up on some area highways

February 05, 2019

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    New speed limits will be posted on some area highways, thanks to the results of a 5-year study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

    The 55 mph speed limit found on many rural two lane highways dates from 1974, when the Emergency Highway Conservation Act established that speed as the national maximum limit. In a five year study ending in 2013, MnDOT increased the limit to 60 on 1,550 miles of rural highways. Now another five year study has been completed and over 5,200 more miles in the state will be re-signed to the higher limit. Statewide, 81 percent of two lane rural state highways will be posted at 60 mph, according to the study. 

    The new speeds will go into effect once the signs are posted.

    Each road segment was studied for existing travel speeds, crash history, hazards and roadway geometrics such as shoulder width and grades, according to a MnDOT news release. About 77 percent of the studies concluded that the highway speed could be raised safely. 

    “It is important to remember that raising a posted speed limit is not inherently making a road ‘less safe,’” said the report, Evaluation of Certain Trunk Highway Speed Limits (January 2019). “A properly selected speed limit can increase the safety of the roadway by creating uniform travel speeds for all vehicles and by setting realistic driver expectations of those trying to cross or enter the roadway.” The report can be found at www.dot.state.mn.us, click on news releases, five year study and follow the link to the report.

    Speed limits on the following local roads will be increased from 55 to 60 mph:

    2018 study year:

    • Highway 169: Hill City to Grand Rapids; Bovey to Calumet; Calumet to MN 65 (25 miles)

    • MN1: Northome to MN6; MN6 to Effie; Effie to Itasca CR533 (44 miles)

    • MN6: Deer River to MN1 (37 miles) 

    • MN38: Grand Rapids to Itasca CSAH19 (11 miles)

    • MN65: Goodland to US169 (12 miles)

    In previous years:

    • US2: Cohasset to Grand Rapids (0.6 miles)

    • MN286: Talmoon to Marcell (4 miles)

    • MN200: Hill City to MN65; MN65 to US2 (25 miles)

Education, broadband, tourism top Recharge the Range priority list

January 24, 2019

By Kitty Mayo

 

    The Recharge the Range initiative has wrapped up with a final report put out by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in recent weeks.

    Thousands of people were affected as the global downturn on steel and iron hit the Iron Range in 2015, closing mines, leaving workers without jobs and hurting many ancillary businesses.

    Since early 2016 over 600 people have participated in forums and meetings to generate novel ideas to promote economic growth on the Iron Range. Participants from the business world, community, arts and public looked at ways to encourage tourism, recreation, culture and community growth.

    Action groups carried out the brainstorming, creating economic development strategies in multiple areas. Over 120 group meetings were held over several months to look at: large business expansion and attraction, education development, natural resources, tourism and infrastructure. The public also joined in the conversation at a large event held at the Minnesota Discovery Center.

    IRRRB commissioner Mark Phillips said that despite the reopening of the mines there are compelling reasons to carrying on with the mission to diversify the economy.

    “Despite current low unemployment rates, underemployment and better paying jobs to keep young people in the area are ongoing problems,” Phillips said.

    Creating actionable ways that the entire community could contribute to the idea generating process was an important piece of the equation for the IRRRB.

    “The idea was to have an active region-wide planning effort with the public weighing in on what they think the agency’s priorities should be,” said Phillips.

    What they heard consistently was that broadband, childcare, affordable housing and workers were needed.

    Though the formal portion of Recharge the Range brainstorming is over, Phillips says that hope is that more action comes out of the energy generated.

    “This is set up now so that committees formed through Recharge the Range have a life of their own to keep the momentum going,” Phillips stated.

    IRRRB plans to have a listening session in the future to continue to have public engagement on forming future goals.

    Lack of welders was a big ask from many companies during the Recharge sessions, and that conversation has already had measurable results in the form of a new 10-week welding program through Northeast Higher Education District schools.

    “We heard that the state university system for welding programs just didn’t get enough students, it was a lack of awareness about the good paying jobs in welding, and that you don’t need a two-year degree to get these entry-level welding jobs,” Phillips said.

    A look at infrastructure put broadband as a top priority for vast underserved areas of the Range.

    “We are hearing from the customer care center operators that it is possible when someone is mature in the job they could do the job from home. In some rural places where there are childcare shortages that could tie this all together, but we need broadband in place,” Phillips said.

    Despite having the largest underserved area by square mile, no significant state funding for area broadband projects has been in the offing. Through meetings with Blandin Foundation the IRRRB helped to determine that organized community groups making applications for funding had been lacking from the region. Now five communities from the Range are in the process of making formal applications, and five more groups are preparing to do so.

    “We are going to be applying for big money going forward and we expect IRRRB is going to be a component of a local match, and I think we are going to see investment in the next several years,” Phillips stated.

    Meanwhile, small fixes have been implemented, including wifi access on Chisholm school buses and hotspots in some downtown areas.

    A tourism ambassador certification program has already been launched in the region as an offshoot of the Recharge activities. Sara Ferkul, information team staff at IRRRB, says the program first launched in Minnesota in Rochester, and has formal training from an organization that comes to the area with a custom-designed curriculum specific to the area.

    “The tourism ambassador program is really fantastic and when people hear that staff are certified they are really impressed,” said Ferkul.

    Hospitality training to increase staff knowledge of area attractions and activities was identified as a goal coming out of Recharge sessions. Some area staff have already received the training, including Giants Ridge and some area restaurants.

    Phillips says that while agriculture is not commonly thought of as a strong economic influence on the Iron Range, there are already some farmers focused on livestock with enough of a toehold to be an opportunity for growth.

    “Some things take a little longer to germinate, but the impact of agriculture in the area is significant and could grow with opportunities like adding a rendering facility and federal inspections so those products could be sold in area stores,” said Phillips.

IMA: Banner year for 2018 Minnesota iron shipments

January 17, 2019

BusinessNorth Report

 

    The 2018 shipping season comes to an end this week, and all indications point to a banner year for shipments of Minnesota iron, the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota said Monday.

    The final ships carrying Minnesota iron have left the Port of Duluth for North American steelmaking facilities where the ore will be made into steel. The Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie closed at midnight Tuesday.

    In a news release, the IMA extended its gratitude to the men and women of the shipping industry.

    “Shipping is a vital component of Minnesota’s iron mining process,” IMA President Kelsey Johnson said. “The shipping industry is the critical link between Minnesota iron and the steel used throughout the United States.”

    More than 80 percent of iron mined in the United States comes from Minnesota. There is only one other operating iron mine in the nation, which is in Michigan.

    “The 2018 shipping season has shown considerable strength and demand for domestic iron ore,” Johnson said. “During this winter break, our mines will continue to produce iron ore inventory as we prepare for a successful 2019 shipping season.”

County Board reviews 2017 audit, denies road petitions

November 22, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Itasca County Board met on Tuesday, Nov. 13 and heard a summary of the 2017 audit by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP; approved and denied several petitions on roads, liquor license and gambling license; and heard a Public Health update on the coming flu season and vaccinations. 

    Sixteen items were included in the consent agenda, and two closed sessions were held regarding the ERPI bankruptcy and labor negotiations.

 

2017 audit

    Doug Host, principal of CliftonLarsonAllen, presented an exit conference for the 2017 county audit. In reviewing financials, the auditor pointed out that in general Itasca County has lower than recommended expenditure coverage in its unrestricted fund balances. 

    For instance, in all unrestricted government funds, Itasca County had a cushion of 3.8 months in 2017 vs. the recommended 5 months by the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor. Human Services was highlighted with revenues $3.7 million over budget and expenditures $3.4 million over budget, Host explaining that in other counties major expense increases in this area were “astronomical” to the point of possible bankruptcy. Commissioner Leo Trunt pointed out that Itasca County had already addressed a similar spike in previous years. 

 

Petitions

    Three petitions to convert existing forest roads to county roads or highway were denied, although the board was told that discussions with the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources would continue to seek a solution that addresses emergency services access and public safety concerns. 

    Considerations included budget limitations and whether properties accessed were homesteaded year-around private properties. Karin Grandia, county highway engineer, said currently there are over 1,300 miles of county-maintained roads and over 400 miles under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service or DNR in Itasca County. The county has agreements to provide blading and/or snowplowing on just over 50 miles of the latter. Roads where county jurisdiction was requested were Forest Roads 2380 (Cut Foot Summer Homes Road) and 2033 (Rainbow Road), and the Snake Trail and Beatrice forest roads plus Cedar Lane.

    A liquor license was approved for Big Splithand Resort Bar & Grill and a gambling license approved at Blackberry Bar & Grill benefitting the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association. At the Nov. 6 work session, an off sale liquor license was approved for the Balsam Store. The license had been approved by the Balsam Town Board on Oct. 18, but a petition to deny this license had been brought to the county board by local residents. The petition required 72 signatures from Balsam Township, however, and only 56 of the 121 signees were qualified, invalidating the petition.

 

Flu season

    The flu season peaks from December to January for Type A and February through March for Type B viruses. Public Health is giving quadrivalent flu shots with two strains of both types. As of Nov. 13, 930 flu vaccinations have been given. Protection is important; in the 2016-17 year there were 3,790 hospitalizations for flu in the county, last year there were 6,317. Public Health offers both child and adult vaccinations for a $20 donation (that can be waived). Nurses can also come to homebound patients. For information, call (218) 327-6155.

    In other business, the county board:

    • Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $1,268,271.86.

    • Approved two repurchases of tax forfeit property.

    • Set a budget work session for Tuesday, Nov. 27 from 12-2 p.m.

    • Appointed Lisa Maasch to fill a vacancy on the Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment.

    • Authorized one year agreements for quality improvement advisor, medical director and dental director services for IMCare.

    • Approved a road maintenance agreement with the city of LaPrairie.

    • Agreed to send a letter in support of a call to action by the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools voicing opposition to proposed water quality standards filed by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Commissioner Ben DeNucci said that adopting the standards might result in a $1 billion investment in mining wastewater mitigation equipment by local affected governments, and that the proposal is based on flawed science.

County Board updated on IMCare, suicide rates, reverses decision on employee reimbursement

November 01, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    The Itasca County Board met on Tuesday, Oct. 25 and heard presentations on suicide rates and prevention in the county, as well as dental access for IMCare recipients. It discussed a counter offer to keep snowmobile trails open over mining land partially owned by a private company. A previous vote to rescind a payment to an employee was revisited and reversed.

    The board also held a closed meeting to consider county options regarding the ERP Iron Ore (ERPI) bankruptcy. The county is an unsecured creditor and also is concerned about outstanding debts owed to local contractors. ERPI purchased Magnetation assets from its bankruptcy.

 

Suicide rates in Itasca County

    Kelly Chandler, public health division manager in the Department of Health and Human Services, summarized the issues surrounding suicides in Itasca County including risk factors, myths, statistics and what county residents can do to reduce the number. Of the 37 counties reporting, Itasca County had the highest rate of suicides per 100,000 from 2012 to 2016. 

    County residents should learn the warning signs of suicide and check on anyone they are concerned about to try to open a line of communication. Most importantly they should maintain safe and less accessible storage of firearms. Citizens were asked to lobby for funding and parity in coverage of mental health across insurances. Resources were listed: Dial 211, First Call for Help; the Crisis text line, type MN to 741741; and the National Suicide Prevention and Veteran’s Crisis Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK).

 

Dental coverage for IMCare

    The state withholds 5 percent of funding for IMCare that has to be bought back through meeting performance goals. This year’s focus is to improve the access of dental services. Only about half of the 8,500 people enrolled in IMCare see a dentist on a regular basis. The county was able to encourage 297 who had not seen a dentist to make a dental visit.

 

RGGS Trails

    RGGS rejected an offer by the county for a buy/sell agreement instead of cash payment for approximately 8 miles of snowmobile trail easements over mining land owned by the company. The board declined the idea of making cash payments and decided to make one counter offer, doubling both the acreage interest offered and the width of the trail for a permanent easement, subject to relocation for mining needs. The value of the acreage in both cases is equal at $49,000.

 

Previous vote rescinded

    A previous vote at the Sept. 25 board meeting to rescind payments made to a county employee to reimburse her for legal defense over actions while on county business was reconsidered. 

    Commissioner Terry Snyder said he had consulted the county’s human resources lawyer to find out if he had complete information when voting and asked to revisit the matter. “I’m doing what I feel is right,” he explained. “I hope…we can find a way to come together so that nobody is involved in anything like this again.” Commissioner Davin Tinquist also supported the revisit, saying that the county should support its employees.

    Commissioner Burl Ives explained that his vote was about the procedure, or how the warrants came to the board, not about politics or about the validity of the claim. The board voted to rescind the previous vote 3-2, with Commissioners Ives and Ben DeNucci opposed.

    The commissioners then voted to approve the two warrants originally presented in December 2015 and May 2018 retroactively based on attorney review. The vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Ives and DeNucci opposed.

    In other business, the county board:

    • Recognized new employees Zachery Heinrich, highway maintenance worker in the Road & Bridge Division of the Transportation Department due to a job transfer, and Nick Schreiber, forester in the Land Department due to a promotion. Lisa Sigfrinius has been promoted to accounting technician in the Auditor/Treasurer Department and Dan Mandich is retiring from the Transportation Department with 32 years of service.

    • Approved commissioner warrants in the amount of $3,028,368.33.

    • Approved the Health and Human Services Department October warrants in the amount of $1,116,648.60.

    • Approved a resolution accepting a limited use permit for operation of the Wilderness Trail ATV/OHV route over public rights of way along and crossing Highways 38 and 6 in the Marcell and Talmoon areas.

    • Accepted several grants for emergency management and the recidivism reduction program.

    • Announced an oral intermediate and regular timber auction at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11 at the Cohasset Community Center.

    • Heard a summary of the “Live Like a Local” campaign by Visit Grand Rapids.

Itasca County updated on transportation services, fraud prevention

September 23, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    At the Tuesday, Sept. 11 county board meeting, the board heard updates on two programs within the Department of Health and Human Services; Protected Transportation and Fraud Prevention.

    Protected transportation began last June as a solution to unnecessary use of non-emergency ambulance and law enforcement transport, explained Cre Larson. Administered by the state Department of Human Services, the Itasca County program provides transportation in situations like mental health transportation, return from hospitalization over 90 miles away and others. Evaluations are done by members of a crisis team with physician signoff, and the program includes 23 team members, 10 drivers and one modified vehicle. The program can bill third party payers. 

    Itasca and Koochiching county fraud prevention is underwritten by state dollars, explained Eric Villeneuve, director of the Itasca County HHS. Investigator Elizabeth Peterson has, over the last 12 months, recovered about $37,000 before disbursement and over $141,000 after erroneous disbursement from state welfare programs. About 65 percent of fraud is from misreporting household composition, she said, and about 20 percent is from misreporting income. Other types of fraud, such as selling benefits for cash, make up the rest. 

    Recipients involved in fraud may be disqualified for a period of time, required to pay back amounts or prosecuted: five are currently in criminal court proceedings. 

    Commissioner Terry Snyder asked why more were not prosecuted for gross misdemeanor, saying “Theft is theft, whether county, state or retail,” and asked for a follow-up on who set the criteria for prosecution. 

    Commissioner Burl Ives asked whether Peterson needed more staff and suggested that part of the legislative platform should include more funding for fraud investigation. 

    In other business, the board:

    • Set budget sessions for Monday, Sept. 17, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and Tuesday, Sept. 18 from 9 a.m.-noon.

    • Recognized Tara Graeber, who has been promoted to Case Aide in the Health and Human Services Department and Mechanic/Welder Brandon Schmidt, a new employee in the Transportation Department.

    • Approved warrants for 9/14/18 in the amount of $1,061,372.95.

    • Approved a FAA grant agreement for improvements at the Itasca County/Grand Rapids Airport.

    • Accepted a $16,362 grant award for the Toward Zero Deaths/Safe Roads from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for traffic safety programs.

    • Set fourth quarter daily rates for residential services through Northland Counseling and Go-Forward Residential Group Home, Inc. 

    • Approved installing two retaining walls at the Itasca County Demolition Landfill to contain materials being screened before entering the landfill.

    • Authorized and fixed terms of sale for the Tax Forfeited Property Auction on Friday, Oct. 26 in the board room.

    • Approved resolution of support for state approval of the negotiated Vermillion Gold lease request.

Historic city hall renovation nears completion

September 13, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    In early 2011, word went around the community that the city council in Bigfork was considering tearing down the 1936 city hall structure and replacing it with a metal common stock structure. In fact, wrote Mike Kocian, “the train had all but left the station” with a floor plan for the smaller replacement building already in hand.

    The city hall building did have major issues. The heating system was old, inefficient and costly. The roof was leaking in at least 20 places and the foundation had water seepage. On the other hand, not a single stone had fallen from the cast concrete walls that were covered with local field stone, and a contractor looking over the building pointed out that there was not one crack in the exterior wall.

    And it was a structure embedded deep in the memories of Bigfork; the only structure large enough to host community celebrations from suppers to dances, the location for movies and original home to a library and city fire truck. 

    Over 70 citizens turned out at the April 2011 council meeting to protest the plans.

    A small group of local residents formed a Bigfork City Hall Preservation Group. They developed some short-range goals to find a way to repair the major problems of water inflow and heating, and long range plans to determine the cost and find funding for permanent repairs. 

    The group also realized that the building was eligible for - and needed to be listed in the National Historic Registry to find much of this funding. It had originally been built with local labor and materials as a Works Progress Administration project in a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, and it was one of only 15 recognized historic buildings left in Itasca County. 

    At the May meeting, the city council gave the group six months to figure out some alternative. “It was pointed out to the council,” wrote Kocian, “that our Preservation Group is willing to do all the work; research funding sources, apply for grants, get bids on work needed, volunteer to do some temporary fixes, whatever it takes. The council could get the credit for being foresighted enough to save this historic city building. A win-win for everyone! Right?”

    Immediately the Bigfork VFW Post 1764 donated $30,000 to renovate the lower level kitchen and seating area where the group held its meetings. Fundraisers like a 50s Sock Hop were planned. Repairs started: a rubber roof contractor filled in the roof leaks and downspouts were rerouted.

    In fact, the group became so active that it only took until the June meeting for the city council to pass a resolution to “repair, preserve and continue to use the City Hall building, and to officially recognize and work with the Preservation Group to accomplish this.” 

    Fundraisers were held at every opportunity. Bigfork High School alum Floyd Hennagir donated $1,000, saying “I have learned through the years that if you don’t take care of the things you have, it’s harder to figure out where you are going in the future.” The Bigfork VFW contributed another $10,000 toward fixing the heating system. Donations came in all sizes down to dollars stuck into jars.

    Within a year, the project had received a planning grant from the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) to hire an architect to develop preliminary plans and cost estimates, and enough money had been raised to hire a writer to apply for the National Historic Register. That designation came through in October 2012. 

    The group also became a nonprofit, an important step for receiving grants and donations. The preservation group adopted the acronym B.I.G.: Bigfork Improvement Group.

    Despite the enthusiasm, everything did not run smoothly. For example, the historic writer found that the city was not listed as the owner of the property. Built on the site of the Woodland Hotel which had been lost to a fire, the city clerk had not recorded the transfer in the 1930s. 

    It would also be costly. The architect found that just the high priority projects in the renovation would cost in excess of estimated $271,500 with an equivalent amount for the medium priority items. Interestingly, 75 years before, the original cost of the building was reported to be about $22,000, split between the WPA and Bigfork. 

    In 2013, B.I.G. received a $25,000 planning grant from the MHS and hired a Duluth architect to create construction documents. In the 2015 MHS grant cycle, Phase I received capital funding. Major funds also were received in during the building process from the Blandin Foundation (capital support), Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (development and Infrastructure grant) and other foundations. Still, matching monies and funding came through an unrelenting effort at local fundraising.

    This year, the project should be complete, said Angie Storlie, city clerk for Bigfork. The project has seen three stages: Phase I included the roof replacement and basement water abatement. Phase II was renovation on the upper floor; including flooring, wall coating, bathrooms and new windows all around, upper and lower. Phase III added new commercial grade appliances in the kitchen, a handicapped lift between floors and new cabinets. 

    Now tourists stop and take pictures with the huge carved River Driver statue in front of the building. Shrubs and flowers decorate the front. New energy efficient windows reflect the light. 

    The restored city hall represents a community who took an issue to heart and worked for seven years to see it through.

    “I’m very proud of the hard work and contributions of the Bigfork Improvement Group volunteers,” said Kocian, who was part of the initial launch of the effort. Noting that special thanks were due to Grant Writer Tim Johnson and the current mayor and city council, he added, “My thanks to all who supported our fundraisers and donated their time and money to make this preservation project a reality. We once again have a Bigfork City Hall we can all be proud of.”

Solar’s second chance

September 06, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Whatever the forecast, Sept. 10 will seem like a sunny day in Mountain Iron. 

    The first product is expected to come off the line that day at the Heliene (pronounced hay-lene) solar panel manufacturing facility employing about 130, most of whom are being hired now.

    Originally occupying the abandoned solar panel manufacturing plant in May 2017, Heliene is completing a retooling which will allow it to produce one panel (module) each minute and 20 seconds, according to Martin Pochtaruk, president of the Canadian company. 

    The panels are large. A typical unit is 1.9 meters high, said Pochtaruk; over six feet. It weighs over 50 pounds. The company produces a range of panel sizes containing 36 to 96 photovoltaic cells. 

    Each of those panels will already have a destination. According to Pochtaruk, 100 percent of the product will be presold, almost entirely to the commercial, industrial or utility market. Calling it a Just-in-Time production model, the panels are custom built to an order that is the end of a customer process that might need 3-6 months for engineering and up to a year for permitting.

    The modernization of the plant, relying heavily on robotics for its efficiency, was made possible by a $3.5 million joint loan from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRRB) and the Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

    “The solar business has been quite volatile,” said IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips, “so we feel fortunate that we found a mature company – Heliene. We had a distressed facility where they could have some advantages to coming here in exchange for some jobs.”

    The plant originally was built by Mountain Iron for Silicon Energy of California, which relied on the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive subsidy program for its largely residential sales. That program was repealed in 2017. Silicon Energy had received a large financial package from the IRRRB which was renegotiated when it left Minnesota, and the company has honored the settlement so far, said Phillips. 

    The IRRRB also had loaned $3.5 million to Mountain Iron to build the facility. That loan will be paid back through lease payments by Heliene that begin next year, explained Matt Sjoberg, executive director of development at the agency.

    The loan to Heliene has a $1 million forgivable component, according to contract documents, that depends on hiring goals, including wage targets, over seven years. At years five and six, that goal is 70 employees. The company is already hiring more than that, a fact that pleases the IRRRB, according to board member Rep. Sandy Layman, who pointed out that the initial plans called for just 66 employees.

    “This is very good news for us. I’m glad to see Heliene is using the same facility, with some modifications, to produce panels and allow us to be part of the renewable energy employment opportunity,” she said.

    Pochtaruk is also optimistic. Solar is the largest source of new power generation – well ahead of natural gas, he said. In the first quarter 2018, 2.5 gigawatts (1,000 megawatts) of new solar photovoltaic capacity was installed nationally, an increase of 13 percent year-over-year and 55 percent of all new capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. 

    “It’s only going to grow,” said Pochtaruk.

    The strong growth was somewhat of a surprise to analysts, who had predicted a flat year due to the new tariffs on modules and components. Those tariffs start at 30 percent in 2018 and decrease through 2021, after which they are expected to sunset. 

    Although the Heliene panels will be made in the United States the tariff still affects the product, according to Pochtaruk, because of component purchases. Only three countries make the low mineral glass used in the panels: Portugal, Germany and China.

    Still, there appears to be a shift toward domestic manufacturing. Heliene is the first foreign company to open a manufacturing facility in the country (although there is at least one US-owned subsidiary of a foreign company), and expects to open a second in Oregon later this year. But others have announced plans to build U.S.- based plants. 

    “Tariffs might provide an incentive,” said Rep. Layman. “It will be interesting to see what impact they have on growth opportunities.”

    Heliene has been in business since 2010, when it was formed with Helios Energy Europe as a shareholder. The company is headquartered in Sault St. Marie, Ontario and has a manufacturing plant in Toronto with sales offices in Canada and the United States. 

Itasca County Fair

August 23, 2018

Plenty of kids wanted to get on the sizzler on the last day of the county fair.

ATV Trail connecting Bigfork to Balsam opens

August 15, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    “It’s a mission driven trail that has been built here,” said Kacie Stanek, assistant area supervisor of the Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division. The mission, shared across agencies and users, is to connect communities.

    The new 32 mile long B&B Connection ATV/OHM Trail starts in Bigfork and accesses at its southern end the Balsam and Little Moose trails. It’s a trail that goes through pine, aspen, gravel outcrops – and a lot of woods, said Wilderness Wheelers President Ron Danielson, giving all terrain vehicle and off highway motorcycle enthusiasts a diverse experience.

    The trail was officially opened with a well attended ribbon cutting on Aug. 11, followed by a meal and guided ride. The ceremony included comments by club, DNR, Itasca County, the state ATV association and industry speakers.

    Originally started 30 years ago, the project moved forward slowly. There were wetlands and easements over private property and industrial forestlands to negotiate, explained Danielson. When the county passed a new statute allowing ATV travel on county roads, it made it much easier to connect trail sections. The trail crosses Highway 7 five times.

    Itasca County Commissioner Terry Snyder pointed out that the new trail creates recreational opportunities for all ages, not just for a small group. For example as we age, he said, our physical abilities change. But we can still get into an ATV and go. At the same time, the trail helps boost traffic at local businesses.

    Stanek echoed the economic importance of bringing people to the area for destination trail riding. There are 69,000 registered OHVs in the state, a recreational asset that brings $9 million to the economy of the areas where riders travel, she explained. There is also another spinoff: passing along a love of the outdoors that results in an appreciation and investment in natural resources.

    Itasca County Forest Recreational Specialist Sara Thompson, who helped with the trail development, pointed out the importance of funding. Monies for the B&B Connection were received from Itasca County Trails Task Force, a federal recreation grant, DNR grant-in-aid, Yamaha Outdoor Initiative, Polaris Foundation and local business charitable gambling grants. The project also included many volunteer hours.

    Ron Potter, representing the Polaris Foundation, noted all the hard work that goes into building a trail. He described Ride Command, a feature that pulls data from trails all over the country, allowing riders to access ATV trail information. It includes an app which allows riders to track themselves and others in a group on a trail.

    There is now an ATV trail “system” in the state, said George Radke of the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATV MN). Gradually the ends of route segments are drawing together on the state map. ATVs have gone mainstream, he pointed out, and are part of the environment – a way of life. But there is a lot of political watchdog activity and legislative visits needed to ensure a future for the sport. 

    Radke also urged the club to add features to the trail where possible. “Minnesotans love water, mud, rocks, climbs,” he said. “Don’t lose track of using ATVs the way they are meant to be used.”

    Speakers also talked about Len Hardy, whose recent loss touched the local ATV community, as an active promoter of trail opportunities. 

    After the successful completion of the B&B Connection trail, the club has its eyes on another project: the Wilderness Trail that will provide a westward branch between the B&B trail and Marcell, then west to Riley’s near Bowstring.

Where the rubber meets the road

August 08, 2018

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    The need for more well-trained transportation workers is on the dashboard at Hibbing Community College.

   Already a leader in transportation-related technical programming, the college is studying how it can improve its existing programs to address a shortage of qualified, well-trained transportation workers within the region.

    The shortage includes over-the-road truckers, heavy, light duty and industrial truck drivers, bus drivers, auto mechanics, diesel technicians and a truckload of other transportation-related occupations.

    “The biggest issue is there’s not enough good, qualified drivers out there,” said Jeff Hill, Wayne Transports, Inc. terminal manager in Virginia and Superior. “We have as many drivers as we’ve ever had, but there’s a lot of work out there and not enough people are coming into the industry anymore.” 

    Hibbing Community College’s (HCC) existing automotive technician, diesel mechanics and professional truck driver commercial drivers’ license programs have made the college a recognized leader in transportation training. 

    However, college officials want to rev up that success.

    “We’re looking at taking our three existing programs to a point of offering new curriculum that meets the needs of industry,” said Michael Raich, HCC provost. “Our staff is going to go around the state and country in a professional development capacity, find out what the gaps may be, and based on what we hear, continue our efforts to build partnerships.” 

    Like many other industries in the region, transportation is facing a workforce crunch.

    A lack of skilled workers, the need for more women in the transportation workforce, increased awareness of the available jobs and training, a need to attract more students from outside the region, and simply finding enough qualified, dependable workers, are among the transportation industry’s challenges.

    “We don’t have enough skilled workers,” Joe Abeyta, a member of the Operating Engineers told college officials July 24 at a transportation summit at HCC. “We have workers, but they don’t have the right background. A lack of training and a lack of skilled workers is our biggest issue.”

    Focus groups at the summit honed in on additional issues and opportunities.

    Work is plentiful for truckers, say transportation officials.

    “The economy is better than it’s been in 10 years,” said Hill. “2017 was our best year since 2007, and 2018 is even better, When President Trump got elected, that’s when it all broke loose.”

    “There’s lots of work out there,” said John Bright, an HCC diesel mechanics instructor who reported on one of the focus groups findings. “There are unlimited opportunities, but these companies don’t have the people to do the work.” 

    To attract more workers, transportation companies are stepping on it.

    Wayne Transports, whose 700 drivers haul in all 48 lower states and Canada, for the first time recently hired a driver recruiter. The average age of Wayne Transports’ drivers is 57, underscoring the need for replacement workers, said Hill. 

    “We need more drivers who can be dispatched from Virginia (Minn.), but who might live in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan or Ohio,” said Hill. “We have been able to pick up some drivers from eastern Wisconsin in the Green Bay and Milwaukee area.” 

    Halvor Lines, with main offices in Superior, has tractor-trailers equipped with satellite television, GPS, automatic transmissions, two beds, and allows drivers to bring pets along, said Debbie Landry, Halvor Lines director of recruiting and driver services.

    To meets its labor needs, Halvor Lines has already reached out beyond the region to recruit and hire workers from other parts of the country, said Landry. Yet, finding enough employees is expected to remain a continuing challenge within the region.

    Unemployment in Northeastern Minnesota is currently 3.7 percent, essentially deemed full employment, according to Erik White, a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development regional analyst. 

    And the number of available jobs in the region is growing, said White. The number of vacant jobs in Northeastern Minnesota has grown to 9,762 in 2017 from 4,000 in 2007. But due to retirements within the baby-boomer generation and a lack of regional population growth, transportation (along with other industries) are having difficulty finding enough well-trained, dependable replacement workers.

    Within DEED’s Region 3 area of Northeastern Minnesota, the number of workers within the transportation industry has dropped to 3,971 in 2017 from 4,639 in 2002, according to White. Meanwhile, the number of people in the region able and willing to work is expected to shrink to 150,198 in 2030 from 159,281 in 2020. With more jobs available and fewer workers, the number of job seekers per job vacancy is currently at 0.9 worker per job, said White. That’s put the regional labor market into a tourniquet.

    “It’s a tight labor market all around, but especially in Minnesota,” said White. “While there will be hundreds of openings, primarily due to retirements, there will be little or no growth in different occupations due to the availability of new workers. It means attracting more people to the region and retention.”

    The labor crunch is good for workers. To keep reliable employees, businesses are adjusting.

    “To retain workers, there’s been businesses that have had to raise wages,” said White. “There’s also businesses that are raising wages to keep up with inflation.”

    HCC’s efforts to respond to the transportation workforce needs are already rolling.

    In May, the Iron Range Higher Education Committee approved $85,000 for program research and planning of a Center of Transportation and Logistics at HCC.

    Five cents per ton of the Taconite Production Tax paid by Iron Range mining companies is used for higher education programs at educational institutions within the 13,000 square-mile Taconite Assistance Area. In 2017, mining companies paid a total of $2.70 per ton for distribution during 2018.

 

    All expenditures from the Higher Education Account are approved by the higher education committee, made up of four members of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner, the president of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED), a member appointed by the governor, and a member appointed by the University of Minnesota president.

    The higher education funding gives the five NHED colleges a boost in developing programs designed to fit the needs of regional industries.

    “We want to be strategic, and we need to be as current as possible to employers’ needs,” said Bill Maki, NHED president. “We want to take our current programs, make sure we’re staying connected with industry in making these changes and not make changes in areas that the employer would not be on board with.” 

    Maki says the summit showed that transportation leaders want to be engaged with education in addressing the workforce issues.

    “There’s strong interest in creating an advisory committee on our programs,” said Maki. “This is where the discussion started. As we move along, we’ll see what investments might be in this area and continue our relationship.” 

    “We’re very fortunate to having funding so we can develop any type of program, but we need to figure out how to drive people to that training,” said Roy Smith, talent development director for NHED and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation. “We need to engage the region and the community as a whole in the importance of transportation and that this is a lucrative industry. There’s a lot of money to be made. It’s all about developing the programming and the message that moves people to the training.”

    With continued input from industry partners, new transportation programming that could help meet workforce needs could be implemented at HCC, said Raich.

    “We have a pretty solid foundation with our three programs,” he said. “But we could look at whether there’s a fast-track diploma that we could offer or look at adding simulators. Basically, we just want to make our programs better.”

 

    Lee Bloomquist is an Iron Range-based freelance writer.

Outdoor courts open at the YMCA

July 26, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    “An effort like this is what makes the Itasca County community really special,” said Nick Hansen, executive director of the Itasca County Family YMCA.

    He was opening a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new outdoor sports courts at the YMCA on Wednesday, July 18. Speakers represented the many donors and volunteers who brought the courts from a concept for an outdoor recreational venue finalized in September 2016 to a completed fenced and surfaced court complex designed for all ages and three games: pickleball, basketball and 4 Square.

    Volunteer coordinator Bob Holycross recognized the US Bank/Vikings Places to Play fund as a major donor of $35,000. He also noted the enthusiasm of the Grand Rapids administration and Public Utilities Commission, the Grand Rapids Area Basketball Association (GRABA), the Itasca County Pickleball Association and the staff of the YMCA in moving the project forward. 

    Hawkinson Construction, represented by Mark Hawkinson, and SEH Engineering constructed the complex, which received an initial Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board matching grant of $20,000 to start the project. Another major contributor was the Breck Liestman Memorial Fund which donated money toward the basketball court in memory of Breck, a Grand Rapids High School basketball player.

    “Basketball is a winter sport,” said Troy Gunderson, president of GRABA, explaining the importance of the court to get kids involved in the summer. The full size outdoor court with 6 hoops was officially named in honor of Breck. “Our family,” said his father Al Liestman, “is completely humbled by this experience.”

    Grand Rapids Mayor Dale Adams provided context to the venue, saying that backers had promoted the YMCA site as the best fit for the purpose. Rep. Sandy Layman represented the IRRRB, explaining the importance of an early match to jumpstart projects. Economic development, she said, was all about improving quality of life for communities.

    Jenny Dreher, representing US Bank and the Minnesota Vikings, its partner in Places to Play said, “Play brings joy. Play brings problem solving, creativity and builds relationships.” It’s a value of the bank, she said, to help people work toward their own individual “possible.”

    After the ceremony and ribbon cutting, the large crowd streamed through the gate, filling the basketball court, 6 pickleball courts and three 4-square courts for an afternoon of play. 

Grand Opening of Nashwauk Market on Saturday, July 28

July 19, 2018

By Sally Sedgwick

 

    Think of specialties that are Range favorites: Porketta, breakfast sausage, home smoked bacon, brats, turketta, jerkies, Polish and Italian sausages. 

    Now add an old fashioned Ribfest.

    The Nashwauk Market, formerly Fred’s Market, will be hosting the community at a Grand Opening and Ribfest on Saturday, July 28. New owners Tony Fragnito and Ben DeNucci purchased the grocery business in June.

    Brats, sandwiches and ice cream will be on sale all day, and a cook off by some of the best competitive rib cookers in Minnesota will highlight the afternoon with judging at 2:30 p.m. Rib samples will be available for $1 for the public to taste.

    And, of course, customers can browse all the Range favorites from porketta to homemade breakfast sausage created by its own in-house butcher and from traditional recipes. Fragnito hopes to expand these with some of his own “old country” family recipes in the future.

    Both Fragnito and DeNucci grew up in Nashwauk, enjoying the hometown store’s well-known specialty products and customer service. As the former owner neared retirement, they also realized the importance of the store to the community. 

    Although not brought up in the grocery industry, their analysis showed it was a viable business. In addition, there was experienced store management in place. “Our customers will see many of the same folks doing the same jobs they’ve always done,” DeNucci said. “Our goal is to enhance the store while preserving the things the community loved best about it.” 

    Employees are also members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 198, a tradition that Fragnito points out helps ensures quality. “Quality control is a big factor,” he said. “Our customers have grown to expect a certain quality of product coming out of our store.”

    It’s a new venture in a new industry for the two owners. “We’re looking forward to carrying on the traditions established by the Majewski family and adding our flavor to it,” said Fragnito. 

    The Nashwauk Market is located at 202 2nd Street in Nashwauk and can be reached at (218) 885-1447. Hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday – Saturday and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday.

NRRI proves its mettle; marks 35th anniversary

July 12, 2018

By Lee Bloomquist

 

    It was the early 1980s.

    Northeastern Minnesota’s iron mining industry was in the depths of a historic slump.

    Thousands of miners had lost their jobs. Many were leaving the area with families in search of jobs. 

    And the idea of creating a natural resources research institute in the region to stimulate economic growth was being met with some controversy.

    Thirty-five years later, the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) has proven its mettle.

    Since its founding in July 1983, the institute, at the former Air Force base SAGE Building along Highway 53 in Duluth, and at its minerals laboratory in Coleraine, has grown into a recognized leader in delivering natural resources research and innovation. 

    “The impetus for this was the downturn in the taconite industry in the mid 70s to early 80s, and there was a huge debate,” said Michael Lalich, NRRI’s first permanent executive director. “When I came, it wasn’t hard to determine given the shape of the mining industry that if we didn’t do something about the research, there wouldn’t be any research – the private (mining) research labs would be closed. We had a (water) group ensconced in the Twin Cities that didn’t want to be moved up here and a proposed move of a college of forestry center (in Cloquet) that ruffled feathers. The nature of our research, the applied research versus basic research, ruffled certain feathers. And the fact that we would be competing for state funds also ruffled feathers. But the bottom line is this was a grass-roots effort by local dignitaries, politicians, industry folks and community leaders.”

    NRRI’s mission statement of delivering research solutions to balance the economy, resources and environment for resilient communities has proven critical to the economic vitality of the region, state and beyond. 

    NRRI researchers and support staff focus on researching and driving higher value in minerals, metallurgy and mining; renewable energy; wood products and the bio economy; forest and land; water; and business and entrepreneurship.

 It’s work has helped small businesses develop new products. It’s helped develop new feed stocks from the forest. It’s advanced higher-value minerals products. It’s addressed a range of water quality threats and issues. It’s worked to commercialize renewable energy initiatives. And it’s developed technological and engineering advances in the wood products and bio economy industries. 

    “There’s no other institute like us in the country,” said Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director. “Show me anywhere in the country that has all the water resources we have, the mineral resources, the forestry resources, or the human resources like we do in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Michigan. You don’t see anybody playing in all six areas like us who is also associated with a major university and has ties to industry to solve problems.”

 

A snapshot

    NRRI is part of the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD).

    It operates with 140 staff, including nine engineers and 15 laboratory technicians at its laboratory in Coleraine, which focuses on mining research.

    NRRI’s operating budget in 2017 was $17 million, according its 2017 annual report.

    Exactly 60.8 percent of its funding came from the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Interior and the National Science Foundation.

    Another 26.2 percent of its funding came from the state of Minnesota, including the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and others.

    Industries supported 12 percent of institute funding. Other sources accounted for one percent.

    The institute and its work is receiving support from the Minnesota Legislature more than ever.

    In 2017, the legislature increased NRRI’s base funding, which hadn’t changed since the mid-1980’s, by $2 million annually.

    That’s a significant boost in funding and a vote of confidence from its financial supporters for the future. 

    “They’re on a better path now where it seems like the legislature is more receptive to funding it,” said Mark Phillips, Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner and member of NRRI’s Strategy and Development Advisory Board. “They’re also much more receptive to what they’re doing at Coleraine. I think the future is very bright.”

    “We’ve done good work and received funding,” said Weberg. “We’re focusing on the future and we have a lot of people who want to participate in the circle.” 

 How it began

    Lalich became the institute’s first permanent executive director on April Fools’ Day 1984.

 U.S. Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Gerald Heaney, who worked with the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, was a major factor in the institute’s creation, said Lalich. Perpich, in his 1982 campaign for governor, wanted to create an institute for research on peat, biomass, forest products, water and minerals. Heaney, who was involved in many community-based affairs, wanted more jobs for the region, said Lalich. And Heaney followed through on Perpich’s wish.

    “If you peel off the layers of the onion, the brains, the concept person, I think was Judge Heaney,” said Lalich. “He had a big heart. His work was out of St. Louis, Mo., but he chose to live in Duluth and was extremely interested in this region having more jobs and being more prosperous. I would give him a lot of credit for the concepts.”

    Former University of Minnesota Regent Tom Reagan, Minerals Development Commission Chair Jack DeLuca, former State Reps. Tom Rukavina and Mike Jaros, UMD Chancellor Kathryn Martin, U.S. Congressman James Oberstar, Senators David Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz, and many others, were key in moving the institute forward, according to Lalich. 

    The U.S. Department of Defense transferred the building to the university and the U.S. Economic Development Administration provided $1.8 million in matching money for renovations. 

    Initially, the institute had four divisions, – minerals, biomass, energy and water.

    In 1986, NRRI started a relationship with U.S. Steel at the steel and iron ore company’s research laboratory in Coleraine. U.S. Steel had 10 researchers at the site, whom U.S. Steel turned over to NRRI. The laboratory was later transferred to University of Minnesota ownership. Today, its staff works to develop mining projects such as improving the quality of efficiency of iron ore pellets along with mercury reduction and direct-reduced iron technologies. 

 

The future

    Weberg, a native of Mankato who graduated from UMD, a little more than four years ago left a 25-year job with DuPont Research and Development to become NRRI’s new executive director. Weberg twice said no to the NRRI job, but ended up getting talked into coming to Duluth to take a look. 

    “I remember flying in to take the job and it was snowing to the point where UMD was closed, so I drove a car from the Minneapolis airport up here,” said Weberg. “I recall driving from Cloquet to Duluth and thinking, “Holy crap, what have I done’!”

    However, like Lalich, Weberg said he saw the passion of NRRI researchers and the huge amount of knowledge within staff.

    “I saw people here who could make double the wages in industry,” said Weberg. “With the level of commitment and care they have for their work, the problems the state is facing, and quite frankly it was a way for me to pay back a bit too.”

    A reorganization mirroring Weberg’s experience at DuPont, has forged a closer working environment among staff and invites others – including the state, federal government, and industry – to collaborate with the institute.

    Within the four floor, 120,000 square foot institute in Duluth and the Coleraine lab, NRRI has re-shaped itself, much in the same way that businesses and industry are also re-shaping to meet challenges from abroad.

    The reorganization – and by reconnecting with business, industry, education, government, and other partners – has raised NRRI’s visibility.

    “The idea of taking a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to doing the work NRRI should be doing is what I believe has given us a different stature,” said Weberg. “To not only do the work we need to do in a more comprehensive way, but it also invites other people to collaborate with us more. It makes us better partners not only for the university, but for industry as well as for our agencies partners both federal and state. That, I think, is one big change, and the way we talk about ourselves and our focus on innovation versus iteration; our focus on reducing waste. Waste is bad business. Our focus on diversification and going to high value – keeping more of that money in the state versus going out of state, and most importantly embracing sustainability as a competitive advantage that we as Minnesotans really need to embrace.”

    Reducing waste from existing natural resources, diversifying product offerings and supporting sustainable resource practices while valuing natural ecosystems, are three of the institute’s main themes. Research conducted by NRRI is objective and solutions-driven, said Weberg. 

    Major issues such as sulfides and sulfates faced by the minerals industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants will only be solved with the type of research and technology advanced by NRRI, said Phillips.

    “I think there’s a lot of promise all the way around in minerals, water and energy,” said Phillips. “As a nation, we’re not going to not use minerals anymore. The only way we’re going to solve these things is through technology.” 

    Weberg said the institute is looking five-to-ten years down the road in its strategic planning and seeking to develop higher-value research that results in money staying within the state.

    “We’re more strategically-driven,” said Weberg. “We have a strategic plan that we’re following and we’re using that effectively as a tool.”

    To celebrate its 35th anniversary, public tours of the NRRI facility in Duluth will be offered from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on July 19. Four tours will be offered beginning every half hour. Refreshments will be served in the lobby.

Grand Rapids to try again at local sales tax; Proceeds would be used to fund ‘Project Grand Rapids’

July 05, 2018

By Beth Bily

    The city of Grand Rapids is planning another run at a 1 percent local sales tax this fall. This time, the proceeds would be used to fund an initiative known as Project Grand Rapids, which would make improvements and renovations to the city’s Civic Center as well as other recreational properties.

    City Administrator Tom Pagel outlined the components of the project to the city council last month. They include:

    • A Kids’ Campus located at the city’s IRA Civic Center (key components of which are daycare facilities, early childhood education, space for the recently established Grand Rapids/Greenway Boys and Girls Club and an indoor playground) 

    • Accessibility improvements 

    • Civic Center renovations (roof replacement and a new refrigeration system for the west venue as well as locker room upgrades)

    • The addition of artificial turf at Legion Field, which will transform it to a multi-use sports/activity venue

    • A sports training and rehabilitation center within the Civic Center

    • Parking lot expansion

    Although the improvements seem to be largely geared toward recreational pursuits, Pagel noted that the project would address several key economic development issues. “This touches on a lot of areas (identified) in the city’s comprehensive plan,” he told city councilors.

    Before voting in support of the local sales tax initiative, City Councilor Rick Blake noted his own involvement in childcare issues locally. “This project helps address childcare needs,” he said.

    Grand Rapids and its surrounding area currently face a shortage of about 517 daycare spots. The absence of adequate daycare translates into unrealized potential in the local workforce as parents opt to stay home with children rather than work outside the home.

    Pagel also noted that the transition to multi-use athletic field facilities through the addition of artificial turf would mean the city could book “shoulder season” sporting events that bring hundreds of visitors to town, filling local restaurants and hotels.

    A recently updated economic impact study from the University of Minnesota concluded Project Grand Rapids would have a $40 million construction impact, generating 327 jobs. Researchers also concluded there would be a $2.9 million value-added impact, creating 78 indirect jobs, should the project come to fruition. Due to its recent addition, the artificial turf and sports training center components of the project were not part of the updated economic impact assessment.

    Current estimates place the cost of Project Grand Rapids at $31.5 million. Pagel told city officials that they would seek a combined total of at least $3.5 million from state bonding, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and the Blandin Foundation. 

    The remaining cost of the project would be funded by a 1 percent local sales and user tax, if the measure is passed by voters. The city council voted last month to put the tax question on the ballot this fall. The city unsuccessfully tried to pass a local option sales tax in 2014, which was to be used for road improvements. 

    The Minnesota Department of Revenue estimates that a 1 percent sales and user tax in Grand Rapids would generate about $2 million annually. Conservative estimates indicate about a 20-year timeline for paying off Project Grand Rapids through the sales tax initiative.

    The city is partnering with a number of other entities for the project including the school district, Mobility Mania (a group with the goal of increasing accessibility for those with disabilities), the local Boys and Girls Club, Itasca Area Schools Collaborative and others. Partnership agreements between the city and the various entities are currently being developed.

    Although the tax has yet to be approved by voters, Pagel noted a number of advantages in paying for the project with a local sales tax. Among them are local property taxes would not go up; and more than half the annual revenues would be generated by people living outside the Grand Rapids city limits.

    A number of cities and counties throughout the state have similar local taxes in place. Amounts collected vary from 1/2 percent to 1-1/2 percent. Generally, any goods or services subject to state sales tax would also be subject to a local tax – with the exception of automobile purchases and gasoline. Pagel said that cities such as East Grand Forks, Cloquet, Proctor and Bemidji have passed local tax measures to fund similar projects within their respective communities.

    Officials believe that a recent ballot question posed by the Grand Rapids School District demonstrates that there is community support for the project. The school district ballot question in April asked voters for support in making improvements to local athletic facilities, including the installation of artificial turf at Legion Field. While the question did not pass, there was majority support from the three precincts that lie within the city limits.

    The local sales tax question will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. If voters pass the measure, the city will then need to secure legislative approval prior to implementing the tax.

    Meanwhile, city planners are developing strategies to communicate the need for Project Grand Rapids to the general public. In a late June presentation to the city council, Parks and Recreation Director Dale Anderson noted that the communication committee was meeting every other week to determine how best “to get the word out.” 

    Anderson added that the recent addition of artificial turf at Legion Field to the overall project scope could be a selling point to voters. “We’re confident that will positively impact more kids in our community,” he said.

Business, community, labor leaders credit Trump for turnaround

June 29, 2018

By Ron Brochu

    Duluth, long considered a DFL stronghold, looked like solid Donald Trump country when the U.S. President visited the city last Wednesday.

    Although he has every reason to ignore Duluth, which favored Hillary Clinton by a 60-30 margin in the 2016 presidential election, Trump packed AMSOIL Arena with supporters during an evening political rally. And earlier Wednesday, he received strong support from regional business, community and union leaders at a Duluth roundtable addressing trade and economic development.

    In opening remarks at an industrial waterfront venue, Trump put a strong focus on the need to continually improve America’s economy, noting that other countries have taken unfair advantage of the United States for many years. 

    “We’re not going to allow that anymore,” he said. “We’re going to end up with great trade deals – fair trade deals. They are so far out of balance (now), and that’s going to change,” he said. 

    Giving a lesson on America’s history of importing oil, sometimes from unsavory sellers, the president said the energy situation has changed.

    “We’re now an exporter of energy for the first time. We were always reliant on far-away lands that we had to protect. Now, we’ll protect our friends but not our enemies. You saw that with the Iran deal that we terminated, and rightfully so. It was a horrible deal for our country,” he said.

    “So now we have fair and reciprocal trade, which is so important. The era of economic surrender for the United States is over – it’s just over,” Trump said.

    Later, he noted that the United States has wasted $7 trillion on strife in the Mideast, where the country imports much of its oil.

    “We might as well have thrown it out the window,” he said, explaining the money should have been spent on American infrastructure such as highways and airports.

    Trump cited the lack of border control as another lingering issue that past administrations have failed to address.

    “We have to have control of our borders. Once we lose our borders, we lose our country. Once we ease up and say ‘Oh gee, everybody please come up,’ we’ll have millions of people flowing,” he said. The president suggested that illegal voting by undocumented immigrants might have prevented him from gaining a majority in Minnesota during the 2016 election.

    On an issue closer to home, he decried excessive regulation, saying it has often hurt the mining industry.

    “We’ve cut out massive numbers of regulations – more regulations than any other president in the history of our country … and we’ve done that in our first 500 days,” he said.

    Each roundtable participant received one opportunity to give remarks during the session, which lasted about 48 minutes. Most credited President Trump for helping Northeastern Minnesota industries.

    • Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, thanked him for the Section 232 ruling that imposes steel and aluminum tariffs to protect national security by ensuring those industries remain healthy in the United States.

    “We thank you very much for taking that very seriously. This is a solid answer and we’re very appreciative of that,” she said.

    • St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber told the president Minnesota is on the brink of a precious minerals mining boon. Trump, who supports Stauber in his 8th Congressional District race, said his administration “will get it done. It’s a big, big thing for the country and the state of Minnesota. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of land in the world and it’s right here in Minnesota.”

    Trump noted he was aware the administration of President Barack Obama, in its final days, made decisions that would have prevented precious mineral exploration on some of those lands, depriving many workers of their livelihood. 

    “We have made a lot of progress in a very short period of time,” Trump said about that situation.

    • U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-2nd District, credited the Trump administration for reversing costly administrative rules. 

    “That’s repealing about $3.7 billion in rules and regulations that were hampering energy and mining and manufacturing in Minnesota. We’re going to continue this job because we’ve only just begun,” Lewis said.

    • Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupancich stressed the importance of mining jobs, noting they contribute millions of dollars to Minnesota’s education trust fund. Copper-nickel deposits, if they can be mined, will bring new prosperity to the area, she said.

    • Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich said copper-nickel mining will be conducted “as advertised” and per specifications, and not endanger the environment. 

    • Duluth Seaway Port Authority Commissioner Ray Klosowski said Trump’s new tax structure is bolstering the transportation industry.

    “We’re shipping cargo out of here and shipping it in like we’ve never seen it before,” he said.

    • U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer said Trump is a strong leader at a time when Minnesotans crave one. 

    “The people you see in this room right now and the people sitting up here have been dying to have somebody listen to them, to hear them and to understand what they need. Instead, they’ve had academics and intellectuals patting them on their heads for years saying ‘we’ll take care of you.’ And they’ve been killing their livelihoods up here in the great north and all across the country. God bless you for following through and talking to the forgotten men and women of this country,” Emmer said.

    • St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson told Trump that mining has occurred for more than 100 years in Northeastern Minnesota and “We have some of the cleanest lakes, streams and rivers in North America.” He called upon Trump to further pare down the federal bureaucracy.

    “I promise you that this Iron Range will make this country proud,” Nelson said.

    Trump’s political rally at AMSOIL Arena began with a strong endorsement of Stauber, who gave brief remarks. Although the president’s opponents had protested his appearance all week, Trump drew a full house to the rally.

Nordic Ski Team athletes train at Mt. Itasca

January 01, 2020

    Six Olympians on the USA Nordic Ski Team trained at Mt. Itasca last weekend as well as 24 other skiers, many of whom are national or junior national champions.

    According to the group’s Facebook page, they have a new partnership with Mayo Clinic so will be returning to Minnesota for spring/summer training at Mt. Itasca next year, too. Mt. Itasca has the best summer jumping venue in the Central Division, they report.

    Local athletes who participated include Keewatin residents Casey and Iyana Flett who is starting by skiing down the landing hill to get the feel of the wet slippery plastic and the higher friction grass out run.

    Itasca Ski and Outing Board is investing in safety sideboards as required for any sanctioned tournament.         Larson Construction is heading the project, which is scheduled to be completed this summer in time for a certified competition this winter on Dec. 29.

Several file in county attorney, sheriff races

June 14, 2018