Minnesota Discovery Center gets money to reopen research libraryEVELETH — Iron Range Resources on Monday approved $250,000 in emergency cash to keep the heat on and pay bills at the shuttered Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. It then unexpectedly threw in another $200,000 to reopen the center’s history research library.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
EVELETH — Iron Range Resources on Monday approved $250,000 in emergency cash to keep the heat on and pay bills at the shuttered Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. It then unexpectedly threw in another $200,000 to reopen the center’s history research library.
The agency’s board approved a recommendation from IRR Commissioner Sandy Layman to reallocate $250,000 to the center, formerly called Ironworld, to keep it afloat until March, when Layman said she hopes to make a final recommendation on its future.
Following her action, Range lawmakers on the board threw in another $200,000 to rehire five Ironworld staff to reopen the Iron Range Interpretative Center at Ironworld, at least through March.
“If we’re going to pay to keep the heat on, we might as well pay a little more and have some staff in there to keep the doors open,’’ said state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. The interpretative center specializes in Iron Range genealogy.
The IRR resumed control of the cash-strapped facility in November when the nonprofit board overseeing Ironworld reported it was out of cash and closed its doors, laying off its entire staff.
It’s still not clear what happened in the final months leading up to the closing. But officials hope to find out by spending some of the $250,000 on a forensic accountant to pore over Ironworld’s ledgers.
“We don’t think there has been any illegal activity,’’ Layman said, adding that the agency will know more by year’s end after the books are reviewed. “But the public needs to know.”
Layman and others agreed that the center’s historical and research elements serve an important role for the region. But there is little agreement on the center’s other functions, such as a museum, event center and tourist attraction.
The 660-acre Discovery Center — the name it assumed in June — has struggled to find an identity, visitors and revenue almost since its inception more than 30 years ago. It has drawn criticism, however, with complaints that taconite tax revenue, paid by mining companies in lieu of property taxes, shouldn’t be spent on an entertainment and history center.
Supporters say the center is important for keeping the Iron Range culture and history alive.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed to tell the story of the Iron Range,’’ said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam.
But Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, criticized the effort to keep the history center open, saying the Iron Range needed jobs, not a place where people go to “find out how to make sarma and potitsa.’’
Since 2007, the Discovery Center has been run by the nonprofit Ironworld Development Corp. That year, the IRR established a $10 million endowment to help fund the Discovery Center going forward, with the interest going to help pay for operations. The state agency then cut most ties to the facility, although it still owns the ground and buildings.
Since then, the stock market crash caused the interest income to plummet, creating the shortfall that led to this week’s closure, said Rich Puhek, chairman of the board. Puhek said the value of the endowment dropped as low as $6 million this year and that interest income wasn’t enough to cover costs. He said the situation was made worse when Ironworld’s accountant went on maternity leave and a revolving string of temporary staff may not have kept the board abreast of the dire situation.