The St. Louis County Board faces a difficult choice at its meeting Tuesday in Duluth as it prepares for the next legislative bonding process: whether to prioritize ongoing Depot repairs, or shift priority to major improvements planned at the county landfill in Virginia.

The topic drew a lengthy and sometimes fierce debate at last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting in Duluth.

Some commissioners want to remain tenacious in support of Depot upgrades, while Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, argued that landfill improvements were a fundamentally more important project — one that would allow the county to better treat contaminants, such as PFAS, the “forever chemicals” found in landfill leachate.

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

“I cannot go to the state Legislature and have this ranked below a museum,” Commissioner Keith Nelson said, arguing in favor of prioritizing a $9 million landfill leachate system upgrade over Depot improvements.

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Duluth commissioners were quick to defend the Depot, formally the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center.

“The reason for keeping the Depot at the top of the list is to ensure we get the job done,” said Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing central Duluth.

Frank Jewell
Frank Jewell

The county was awarded $1.5 million in bonding money from the state in 2020 to make improvements to the roof and exterior of the Depot, in addition to sprinkler system and elevator upgrades.

A second phase of lifecycle improvements would include updates to the heating and cooling system, as well as the electrical and plumbing systems.

“We have to prepare it for the next 100 years,” Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said.

The Depot is planned to return to commuter train depot status if the Northern Lights Express passenger rail becomes federally funded.

All told, the county plans to seek bonding money for three projects during the 2021-22 legislative session: Depot improvements ($3.85 million); the landfill upgrade ($4.5 million); and construction of two new buildings for the St. Louis County Fair in Chisholm ($600,000). The county would match each of those dollar figures to complete the projects.

The state’s Department of Management and Budget requires bonding requests be prioritized. Even if commissioners like all three projects equally, they’re not given an option to prioritize the projects the same.

Consensus was reached last week in one regard: The county fair improvement project — new cattle and small-animal barns at the Chisholm fairgrounds — will be the third priority.

The commissioners’ vote next week will determine if the landfill or Depot is top priority.

The proposed two-year landfill project would finish in 2024, constructing a control building and three 6-million-gallon aeration/denitrification ponds, a constructed wetland and an ultrafiltration system — all of which which would address new contaminants, such as PFAS, and allow the county to continue to land apply its leachate.

Separately, the county is evaluating expansion options which could extend the capacity of the landfill for an additional 50 years.

The county’s prioritization of projects is also just one piece of the larger bonding puzzle.

Opinions of the local delegation of state lawmakers matter as much as anything — and the county is in a good position to see its requests looked upon favorably with Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, leading the Senate’s bonding committee, and Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, seated on the House’s committee in charge of bonding.

“Hopefully, they will see the importance of all three,” Nelson said.