What is a pastor to do when his church risks being cut off from its congregation?

Pastor Steve King, of Northstar Baptist Church at 1315 S. Arlington Ave., went to the largest pulpit he could find.

“I took to Twitter on behalf of my church, because I wanted to do whatever I could to get in touch with someone who had the ability to make a difference,” King said. “If we lose our driveway, we can’t get to our property.”

In a series of tweets late last week, the senior pastor pleaded his case, describing a project to rescue the church's collapsing driveway and how it was being held up by deference to a designated trout stream running beneath the drive, Coffee Creek.

"These are regular Minnesotans being hurt here," he tweeted, "not Walmart or Enbridge."

A late-arriving culvert meant the project missed a Sept. 15 installation deadline from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A subsequent "work exclusion window" was put in place based on Minnesota fisheries guidelines, the DNR said, so that construction does not disrupt spawning brook trout.

“Suitable areas for brook trout spawning are limited on Coffee Creek, so this area is important,” DNR spokesperson Cheri Zeppelin told the News Tribune.

On Tuesday, Zeppelin said DNR staff is scheduling a site visit, "in an attempt to find a solution that meets the access needs, while protecting this naturally reproducing brook trout resource."

An extension first sought from the DNR last week was denied, sending King to Twitter, where he wrote, “There is a good chance that our driveway will collapse and/or wash out by the time we can dig again.”

He’s concerned about how the driveway degrades with every heavy rainfall, and especially the spring melt. Coffee Creek runs parallel to the road across the front of the Northstar Baptist Church property and empties into St. Louis Bay in the Duluth harbor.

A motorist leaving Northstar Baptist Church drives over the steel plate covering a section of driveway collapsing into a failing culvert. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A motorist leaving Northstar Baptist Church drives over the steel plate covering a section of driveway collapsing into a failing culvert. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“When we have meltdowns, the driveway starts going down,” he said. “I watch it carefully. I worry that come one Sunday morning, it won’t be safe to get people over.”

State Sen. Erik Simonson and Rep. Liz Olson have reached out to the church to learn more, King said, but it’s unclear what impact they'll have. Simonson told the News Tribune this week that he will “ask the DNR to consider an extension for work to proceed so they can get the project completed.”

The News Tribune met with King on Monday to walk the failing driveway — a paved drive that features a heavy steel plate over the part of the drive which is obviously sinking.

An estimated 100-year-old iron culvert beneath the driveway is rusting badly and filled with holes. The matter is worsened by the way water from the creek now flows over the failing culvert and erodes the earth all around it.

Several years ago, congregation members dug up the surface and laid down timbers to fortify the drive.

“Those worked really well until 2012 when this creek and every creek in the city went over,” King said, recalling the 2012 flood.

In several places rust has eaten all the way through the metal culvert under the Northstar Baptist Church’s driveway. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
In several places rust has eaten all the way through the metal culvert under the Northstar Baptist Church’s driveway. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The driveway is the only access into the church, which has about 80 members. They built in 1992 after receiving 10 lots for the price of one.

“God has really blessed us,” King said. “It was provided to us at very low cost.”

The church has continued to operate modestly ever since. It has a ministry that reaches out to children in the East Hillside and Central Hillside neighborhoods, as well as Lincoln Park, mostly through volunteers. King is the church’s only employee. Some Sundays, such as last weekend, the church can get over 100 people in the audience to worship with traveling evangelists who visit a few times a year.

But the driveway and its $80,000 price tag to date have come to dominate the church’s attention. In order to secure permits and conduct things such as a flood plain survey, the church hired an architectural firm, LHB, familiar with working with the DNR. After that, the whole congregation had to vote to approve the $57,000 contractor’s bid to conduct the three days of installation, during which water from Coffee Creek is scheduled to be dammed into a reservoir and pumped downstream.

“You can start to see where the expenses are coming from,” said King, who worries that having to re-bid the work will drive up the costs beyond what the church can afford.

The DNR originally issued the work permit Aug. 14, but the culvert didn’t arrive until Sept. 11, in the midst of so much rain contractors held off on immediate installation. Then the spawning deadline hit. An extension wasn’t as automatic as anticipated.

Since then, the KTM Paving contractors have moved their heavy equipment off the site to other jobs, awaiting a resolution. The heavy culvert rests near the roadside, ready to be installed.

“We’re not angry,” King said. “We love the environment and we care about our waterways. We’re not looking to trample on the environment. For us, this is a priority of people over bureaucracy.”

King wouldn't forecast an outcome, but he was pleased to know his appeals were being heard.

"My hope is in the Lord, and I trust the Lord is going to take care of us," King said. "We're an independent Baptist church and, politically, we're not going to be the same as most of the representatives around us. But I feel like they're doing a good job listening to our concerns and trying to represent us."