REGIONAL—The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRR) on Tuesday awarded just over $7.1 million in grants and other funding affecting communities in the Taconite Tax Relief Area. Funded projects included $461,900 for outdoor recreation at Tower, which was the largest line item in the trails portion of grants approved this week.
The Town of Ely will receive $130,755 for the planning and design of a new section of ATV trail and $150,000 for street improvements. Other northern St. Louis County communities that received funding this week include Crane Lake, Breitung Township and the Town of Babbitt, while the Ash Lake area will benefit from broadband funds awarded to Paul Bunyan Communications for a fiber project in this community, located north of Our.
IRRR officials pointed out that it uses its funds, in part, to help communities leverage other sources of state, federal and local dollars. Ultimately, the community project funding approved on Tuesday is expected to generate a total investment of $83 million.
At the same time, the IRRR Board of Directors approved a spending plan for fiscal year 2023 totaling $52 million and including continued financial support dedicated to business development as well as public works and broadband infrastructure. The budget emphasizes raising capital, improving the quality of life, and maintaining and creating jobs.
Specifically, the 2023 budget includes $21.3 million for public works infrastructure and business and industry, representing 40% of the budget. The agency is on track to fill funding gaps for one-time federal dollars that are currently available.
The budget is also expected to advance economic development with $22.5 million in resources flowing through community and workforce development programs and supporting the Giants Ridge Recreation Area.
The IRRR 2023 budget provides more funding to several existing grant programs, including the Residential Redevelopment Program, which will see funding increase from $275,000 last year to $750,000 this year. Downtown building rehabilitation and business energy retrofit programs will each receive an additional $250,000 this year. Meanwhile, the EDA partnership and Downtown Streetscapes programs have been cancelled. The agency is also cutting funding for its movie incentive program as well as its partnership with the Natural Resources Research Institute.
Specific local community development projects approved on Tuesday include:
• $461,900 to help the City of Tower raise $600,000 in funding from the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Resources of Minnesota, or LCCMR, to build a trail connection and trailhead near the city port, just north of the highway. 169 bridge. As part of the project, the city will extend its Main Street to the East Two River, providing access and parking at the trailhead and planned launch site for kayaks and canoes. The project will include the construction of restrooms and other amenities near the trailhead as well as the development of a site plan for the harbor to support future construction of connecting trails in the area.
• $130,755 to the City of Ely to plan, design and build part of the Bear Run ATV Trail, which will connect Mud Creek and Wolf Lake roads to the Taconite Trail just west of Ely. The trail should provide a boost to area resorts as interest in ATV riding continues to grow. The project will be funded by an additional $150,000 from the state’s dedicated ATV account.
• $250,000 to the Township of Crane Lake for the reconstruction of Bayside Drive between Handberg Road and the existing MNR boat access point on Crane Lake. The township will designate Bayside Drive as a township road and the planned reconstruction will conform to county and township standards. Improved road standards will improve safety ahead of the planned construction of a $2.7 million Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center next to the landing stage.
• $200,000 to the Township of Breitung as part of a $1.01 million project to replace water and sewer infrastructure in several areas including First Ave., Stuntz Bay Rd., Poplar St. ., Main Street, Church St. and Spring Rd. The DNR, CDBG and the township will contribute the remaining funds to the project.
• $250,000 to the Town of Babbitt for Phase II construction of a new wastewater treatment plant. The facility, parts of which are almost 70 years old, has reached the end of its useful life and it is not economically or technologically viable to renovate it. The MPCA said a new low level mercury limit will be added to Babbitt’s next plant operating license. Thus, the existing wastewater treatment facility will need to be replaced to meet the new permit limits. The project also includes the lining or replacement of old sewer collection system piping. IRRR funding is only a small part of the $10.35 million project. The city also received other state and federal grants as well as a $3.7 million loan from the state’s Public Facilities Authority.
• $150,000 to the City of Ely for utility works and the reconstruction of Pattison Street and 9th and 10th Avenues E, as well as a road and utility extension for a new roadway on Sibley Court Dr. City is contributing $1.154 million to the project.
• $165,000 to the Lake Vermilion Fire Department for the construction of a helipad and a new mooring system for the brigade’s emergency response. The brigade is contributing $40,000 in donated funds to the $205,000 project.
• $101,000 to Paul Bunyan Communications to serve up to 75 currently unserved residences in the Ash Lake area with broadband. St. Louis County is providing $101,250 to the project, while Paul Bunyan is contributing $67,750.
While the plans eventually received unanimous support from the IRRR Board of Directors, a $1.5 million item for infrastructure related to the development of a new 132-room hotel adjacent to the events center Iron Trail Motors in Virginia prompted questions from Senator Tom Bakk. “Are we subsidizing the construction of a hotel that will compete with those that already exist? He asked.
IRRR’s Chris Ismil responded, noting that the funding will only go to public infrastructure to support the project. “There’s no bricks and mortar involved,” he said. The hotel project is expected to bring an estimated $30.67 million investment to Virginia.