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Rail funding is aimed to improve prospects at Grand Rapids’ vacant industrial plant

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority also received grant money to upgrade one of its rail crossings.

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Rail projects in Duluth and Grand Rapids received state funding this week, including at the site of a former waferboard manufacturing plant that Itasca County developers are hopeful to resurrect.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority received $647,000 to reconstruct and modernize approximately 700 feet of curved rail crossing and a switch. The section of track serves multiple terminal tenants, making it an especially vital artery, the Port Authority said.

"It’s vitally important to maintain this infrastructure and upgrade it to help regional manufacturers remain competitive in North American and global markets," Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca said. "This MnDOT grant will help us do that by solidifying a key link in the supply chain."

In Grand Rapids, Voyageur Capital Group was awarded $1.15 million to rehabilitate 5,475 feet of railroad track and reestablish rail service to the manufacturing plant once operated by Ainsworth Co., and Potlatch before that.

The plant has been idle since 2006, and Voyageur bought it along with 138 acres last fall for $800,000. Restoring the rail spur is expected to make the 400,000-square-foot facility more attractive to prospective business.

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"There aren't a lot of large manufacturing buildings in Northeastern Minnesota, so having that rail access right into the building is an attraction," said Matt Shermoen, a business developer with the Itasca Economic Development Corp.

Shermoen said a range of different industries have made site visits, and that it's possible multiple tenants could occupy the facility in the future.

"We hope to attract some businesses in there to grow the job numbers in Itasca County," he said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced the funding this week, as part of its Minnesota Rail Service Improvement program. Seven projects from around the state received a total of $4.05 million in grants.

MnDOT received 21 applications requesting a total of $21.4 million for rail service improvement projects.

“The number of applicants for the 2021 MRSI grants show there’s a great need to maintain or improve rail freight service in local markets throughout the state,” said Peter Dahlberg, Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations program manager. “These local rail connections give local farmers, manufacturers and other local businesses the opportunity to compete in global and national markets.”

The Minnesota Rail Service Improvement program began in 1976.

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