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Duluth, St. Louis County boosters lobby legislators for Northland projects

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About 500 Duluth and St. Louis County business, nonprofit, education and political leaders gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol in St. Paul for a two-day lobbying effort to persuade legislators to support bonds and other projects considered vital to the region's continued economic growth.

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Organizers say it's the largest delegation ever sent to the annual lobbying event. In this bonding year, participants urged legislators to secure state funding for renovations to the NorShor Theatre, Wade Stadium and buildings at UMD and Lake Superior College.

Bonding money -- $3.4 million -- also was sought to help pay for a new snowmaking system for Spirit Mountain that would take water directly from the St. Louis River, instead of using the Duluth city water supply.

After a strategy session in a crowded Senate meeting room, delegates moved in groups between legislative offices and held impromptu strategy sessions, sharing the halls with a motorcycle group clad in leather and denim riding jackets, and a group of students advocating for young people.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness says 2014 is poised to be one of the busiest construction years in Duluth's history, with its four largest projects totaling about $140 million in investment in the city. That could mean major growth in the local economy, population and job market.

"It's vital to us to have a really vibrant community to live and work in," said Jo Ann Hoag, vice president of network development at St. Luke's hospital, who believes such investments are needed to attract a strong, well-educated workforce.

"Our organization is involved because we feel we have an obligation to advocate for clean water and clean infrastructure," said Marianne Bohren, executive director of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.

Bohren hopes the region's needs will not be overlooked in favor of a Twin Cities-centric mindset that looks at Duluth and St. Louis County as "outstate."

"The northern part of the state sometimes is looked upon as a recreational part of the state and for the Cities," said Bohren. "We are important."

Sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and now in its 17th year, the lobbying push seeks to present the needs of Duluth and St. Louis County together. The county, which covers more than 7,000 square miles, is requesting bonding money to improve the Northeast Regional Corrections Center and create a northern home for the St. Louis County Sheriff's Volunteer Rescue Squad.

The corrections center is a minimum-security facility owned by Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which serves St. Louis, Carlton, Cook, Lake and Koochiching counties. Officials say it has a strong reputation for rehabilitation, with 83 percent of residents not becoming re-offenders. But some of its buildings are more than 80 years old and need replacing, hence the $837,500 capital bonding request.

During a meeting with Democratic Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the capital investment committee, delegates were told of the resistance among many legislators to sign off on expensive funding requests, and urged them to rally mayors and other leaders to support important projects.

"We have to be able to lay out the needs," Hausman said. "Have courage to be aggressive."

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