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Northland efforts score big in bonding bill

Minnesota’s newest state park at Lake Vermilion would get $14 million for campsites and other facilities while Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre would get nearly $7 million for reconstruction as part of a compromise state construction package agreed to on Wednesday.

Minnesota legislative leaders agreed on a nearly $900 million construction bill that still needs House and Senate approval this week before going to Gov. Mark Dayton to be signed into law.

“It’s not a done deal, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Daniel Fanning, communications and policy director for the city of Duluth.

“If the bill stays intact, it’s going to be a good bonding year for Duluth …,’’ said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth.

The much-anticipated Lake Vermilion park “build-out’’ money will help turn the 3,000-acre chunk of forest and shoreline into an actual park. The state purchased the land in 2010 from U.S. Steel Corp. for $18 million, but money to build facilities at the park has been slow to arrive.

If approved, the compromise bill will provide $6.95 million for the NorShor Theatre project that’s a cornerstone of the city’s eastern downtown revitalization efforts. Developer George Sherman expects the total cost of restoring the 100-year-old theater, and the attached Temple Opera building, to be about $24 million.

The bill gives Lake Superior College $5.27 million for renovation and revitalization of its Allied health facility on campus, which includes renovations for the physical therapy and dental hygiene programs. The Northeast Higher Education District — which includes Itasca, Rainy River, Vermilion and Hibbing community colleges — would get

$3.3 million for science labs and classrooms

The University of Minnesota Duluth would get the first installment for a new Chemical Sciences building. The bill includes $1.5 million for “pre-design’ funding for the UMD hall that’s estimated to cost about $36 million. In past years, projects that received pre-design money generally were fully funded within a few years.

The bill also includes $19.5 million to pay to reroute utilities along U.S. Highway 53 in Virginia. The highway is being moved to accommodate expansion plans for United Taconite’s Thunderbird Mine. The state still is deciding the exact route for the new road, but the $19.5 million will help pay to move water and sewer lines as well as other utilities to local governments, and residents won’t have to pay.

Other Northland projects in the bill include:

  • $5 million for expansion and improvements at Range Regional Airport just outside Hibbing.
  • $2.2 million for a terminal expansion at International Falls Airport.
  • $3.5 million for a pumping system to pull lower St. Louis River water for Spirit Mountain to use for snowmaking, so the facility doesn’t have to buy drinking water from Duluth.
  • $1.15 million more for the Poplar River Watershed District, the newly built system to pump water from Lake Superior to the Lutsen ski area for snowmaking, as well as to provide water to nearby lodges and townhomes.
  • $8.6 million for the Voyageurs Clean Water Project to provide sewer service to areas near the large lakes that are adjacent to Voyageurs National Park.
  • $3.8 million for a new events center at Giants Ridge Ski Area in Biwabik.
  • $1 million for the Northeast Regional Corrections facility, about half of what the county corrections facility had sought for major renovations.
  • $700,000 for a new Virginia storage facility for the northern division of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Volunteer Rescue Squad.
  • $3 million to St. Louis County to act as fiscal agent for a new downtown Virginia building for the Arrowhead Economic opportunity Agency.
  • $3.9 million for renovation and expansion of the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids.
  • $250,000 for a Hermantown regional health study.
  • $2.3 million to refurbish Wade Stadium in Duluth, just a little more than half of what was requested to fix up the crumbling brick edifice built in 1941 by the Works Progress Administration.

Reinert acknowledged the $2.3 million earmarked for Wade falls well short of the $4.42 million the city of Duluth sought, but he said the money should be sufficient to shore up the stadium’s brickwork, improve drainage on the playing field and update lighting at the historic sports venue in West Duluth.

“It addresses the most pressing needs, versus the nice-to-haves,” he said.

Fanning said the state money would “allow us to fix the turf, fix the lighting and fix the bricks. It will enable us to do what’s most imperative to keep this historic field operating.”

On a related issue, Reinert also said the prognosis remains good for the city of Duluth’s request for authority to renew a half-percent local tax on sales of food, beverages and hotel and motel accommodations. That sales tax, included in both the House and Senate tax bills, would generate an estimated $1.25 million per year.