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Duluth projects come up short in Senate bonding bill

Snow-making equipment at Spirit Mountain (News Tribune file photo)

Duluth got some tough news from St. Paul on Monday morning, when the Minnesota Senate passed its bonding bill without requested funding for several key projects.

The bill would provide none of the $4.42 million sought for the renovation of Wade Stadium. It also calls for significantly less support of work at Spirit Mountain, the University of Minnesota Duluth and the NorShor Theatre than requested.

The House of Representatives and Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending $3.4 million for a new system that would enable Spirit Mountain to draw water for its snow-making operations directly from St. Louis Bay, but the Senate would provide only $500,000.

While the Senate proposes an investment of $6 million in the NorShor Theatre, that’s still $950,000 shy of what the House and governor had earmarked for the project.

And where the House proposes $24 million for the $36 million UMD chemical sciences and advanced materials building, the Senate would provide $1.5 million. Dayton included no funding in his proposal.

As details of the Senate bonding bill emerged, Mayor Don Ness packed quickly for an emergency trip to the state Capitol, before heading off to attend the Maryland funeral of Congressman Jim Oberstar. Ness said he felt compelled to make a case for the requested bonding funds Monday, knowing that he would be out of touch in the D.C. area for the next few days as he pays tribute to his former boss, friend and mentor.

 “It’s important for lawmakers to know how important these projects are to us. We need to impress upon them that it will take a mix of local tourism taxes and these bonding project funds working hand in hand to make our vision of growth possible,” Ness said.

Ness said he had felt confident Duluth projects would receive support in the Senate and was taken aback by the bonding bill that passed early Monday morning.

“All of our conversations with Senate leadership leading up to this point had been very positive, so it took us by surprise,” he said.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, expressed his disappointment in a statement saying: “I am not thrilled with the current shape of the bonding bill. We had a very reasonable package of small, but important, bonding requests.

Ness noted that other similar-sized cities such as Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato all are in line to receive significantly more bond funding than Duluth. Meanwhile, the proposed funding packages for Minneapolis and St. Paul are even heftier.

“Our three projects represented a much smaller ask than other communities about our size had made,” he said.

The bonding bill passed by the House in early April included funding for all three of Duluth’s requested projects, about $14.8 million total.

The Senate bill adopted Monday would provide a total of $6.5 million in funding for just two of the three city projects. While the Senate did call for an additional $200,000 in bond funding for work at the Lake Superior Zoo, that still leaves the city with a big challenge to pay for the $2 million amphitheater being proposed there.

For his part, the governor proposed bond funding for the NorShor and Spirit Mountain but nothing for Wade Stadium.

Ness still hasn’t given up hope that all three Duluth projects could make the cut in a bonding bill crafted by a conference committee. He said he will do his best to sell lawmakers in St. Paul on the benefits of the package in a final push.

Reinert noted that bonding projects that focused on Duluth’s Spirit Valley corridor “were either missing or underfunded in the bill.”

He contends Duluth can make a strong argument for support. “Both Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain have been working on these requests for years, and state money is crucial for these projects to move forward,” he said.

Alternatively, Reinert said: “If funding remains as is, Duluth will have to regroup and decide how to move forward with these projects without state help.”

The bill includes the same amount of funding for renovations at Lake Superior College that was also included in proposals from Dayton and the House of Representatives: $5.26 million.

The money is intended for the college’s Allied Health and Science building, and $1.8 million of that amount will come from the college and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

“We’re happy to be in the bill, happy to have a high priority and happy that all three entities are supporting our request,” said Gary Kruchowski, director of public affairs and advancement for the college.

He said the project, which includes renovations for physical therapy and dental-hygiene programs, is ready to go upon bonding approval.

The college has a completed design, he said, and bids could be let quickly with work starting in the summer.

The Senate intended $1.5 million for predesign work for the UMD science building, said Andrea Schokker, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs for UMD.

“That sets us up for a future bonding year,” she said, and shows that the Senate sees the project moving forward. “So I’m happy that the Senate recognizes how important it is.”

The Senate, House and governor also proposed different Higher Education Asset Prevention and Replacement amounts for the University of Minnesota. UMD stands to receive about 10 percent of whatever amount is arrived at, Schokker said. The Senate listed $45 million, while Dayton proposed $40 million and the House $30 million. UMD would use its share to upgrade either Cina Hall or Heller Hall, since there probably wouldn’t be money to do both, Schokker said.

The new science building is meant to help alleviate space issues for science and engineering students and allow UMD to work more closely with the regional advanced materials industry. Qualified students have been turned away in the past because there isn’t enough room, Schokker said.

“We let in 60 additional students banking on getting this building in the next couple of years,” she said. “We can definitely use this space.”

Items included in the Senate bonding bill include:

* $126.3 million to complete state Capitol building renovation. It is the single biggest expenditure and would come from state budget surplus cash.

* $255 million for state-run colleges and universities to fix and modernize their facilities as well as to build a few new ones. The most expensive single college construction project is $56.7 million to build a University of Minnesota science building in the Twin Cities.

* $18 million in flood prevention efforts, mostly for the Moorhead and Montevideo areas. The governor did not suggest any flood money in his proposal.

* $14 million to develop the Vermilion State Park in Northeastern Minnesota, another proposal the governor did not fund.

* $1.5 million for ice rinks used by youth hockey players and figure skaters around the state that in coming years must replace ice-making equipment that use outlawed coolant.

* $40 million each for local bridge and local road needs. That total is twice as much as the governor proposed.