Nearby flooding latest setback for International Falls
Nearby flooding is the latest in a series of challenges for the state's northernmost town, where residents and leaders don't always agree, but they're fighting back.
INTERNATIONAL FALLS — As home and business owners in pickup trucks made a line to receive pallets of sandbags, high school students joined the National Guard and Red Cross volunteers last week to contend with the worst flooding in the Rainy River watershed in 72 years.
The students, working in school clothes, have been regular participants in the three-week emergency effort at Kerry Park.
“They have been working really hard,” said Falls High School teacher Sarah Peterson. “They’ve been carrying the load. When they show up, those pallets get turned out pretty quickly.”
The city they call “the icebox of the nation,” and “the end of the line” is enduring the latest in a series of recent challenges. Throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada closed its border with the United States, closing off the town from neighboring Fort Frances, across the border, causing untold social and economic upheaval.
Earlier this year, the city’s chamber of commerce voted to disband, only to revive itself with another vote weeks later. The city's mayor died while in office in 2019. A previous bout with flooding in 2014 was preceded by 250-plus layoffs at the local paper mill when ownership changed hands in 2013. That’s not to mention the loss of more than 600 residents between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census, leaving the city with 5,802 residents — its lowest population since 1980.
“We cannot figure that out — where did all the people go?” said Stephanie Heinle, 53, and owner of the Coffee Landing Cafe downtown. “Because the mill is still running, we still have all the banks, and there’s not a house to be had here. It’s weird, random.”
Heinle bills her cafe as a “big-city espresso shop with a small-town cafe feel,” and inside is another prime example of the remote, northernmost city fighting for itself. Heinle keeps the music “on the verge of too loud,” she said, and the place pulses with talk across tables and neighborly greetings. It’s almost always this busy and vibrant, Heinle said, before speaking to the sense of hope inherent in her establishment.
“We’re kind of caught up in our own little world right here, pumping out good food for good people every day at 6 a.m.,” she said. “We don’t worry about any of that drama outside of downtown.”
The drama that seems to come in waves struck hard in March, when the city’s chamber of commerce threw in the towel.
“A lot of it had to do with apathy building up within the community,” said Leif Larsen, chamber president and owner of a local mortuary.
Chamber engagement collapsed during the pandemic, and only after the vote to dissolve did the business community realize what it was losing. Larsen started getting phone calls from concerned business owners, residents, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and a series of inquiries from former chamber presidents who believed that surely the organization could be saved.
“They were feeling the same way I was,” said Larsen, who described recent efforts to recruit new businesses and board members to revitalize the group since a subsequent vote in April called for the chamber to rebuild.
“It was kind of a wake-up call,” Larsen said. “We’re trying to emphasize to members, ‘We get it. You weren’t feeling the chamber was relevant to your business.'"
Now, the conversations are about how imperative it is for businesses to be networking, and the chamber is surveying members about what it can do to facilitate business.
“We’re in a neat spot right now,” said Mayor Harley Droba, speaking near Kerry Park, site of the sand-bagging effort and a potential $15 million bonding request that would reimagine the park.
Droba was a city councilor at-large when he replaced Bob Anderson following his sudden death in 2019. Droba has since been reelected.
“We’re on the verge of legitimate growth for the first time in almost 40 years,” he said. “We don’t have population growth, but we’re getting growth from outside investors believing in our community right now.”
Miner’s Inc. is consolidating its two stores into a new Super One that's moving into an old Kmart building. Two new hotels in town expect to open before summer. Holiday Stationstores is building the first new fueling station in the city in 40 years.
Still, population loss has hurt the tax base at a time when neglected city infrastructure is stressing public works with regular water main breaks. Droba said the situation forced the city to raise its property tax levy for 2022 by 13.9%.
Others wonder if the elected leaders could do better.
“With another 5% from the county, my taxes are up 19.5% from last year,” said Ed Bates, 41, manager of a local body shop who started attending council meetings in September because of the dramatic tax increase.
While he’s wary of becoming a thorn in the city’s side, Bates can’t reconcile large tax increases at a time when property valuations are also skyrocketing — including a 28% increase on his modest home within city limits.
“We’re a great community; we come together to help each other as a cohesive unit,” Bates said. “But when it comes to being united to go to the City Council to say, ‘Hey, this is wrong,’ it’s not there.”
Bates noted the city already has a 1% sales and use tax dedicated to its roads and infrastructure. That was approved by the state Legislature to begin in 2019 and last for 30 years or $30 million, whichever came first. But Droba contended the city needs to get further ahead of its problems, anticipating utilities and roadway replacements throughout city streets.
“The bigger issue for us is we can’t just fix those roads, it’s what’s underneath,” he said.
Droba, who owns a restaurant, The Library, described having to call the city last week to say the establishment’s water was running yellow.
“It’s costing us more money to fix water main breaks than it would be to replace them,” he said. “We had to make a tough decision that we needed to have a 14% levy, so we could put money into infrastructure long term.”
As Droba spoke, the caravan of vehicles in line for sandbags extended for blocks, nearly to Interstate 53, which doubles as Third Street in town. The emergency system is clunky, with vehicles having to turn around in a Kerry Park lot to leave the same way they came in.
When Gov. Tim Walz visited International Falls to discuss the border closure last year, he urged Droba to make Kerry Park revitalization a priority for the legislative bonding process.
Droba took him to heart, and the city pushed for inclusion in prospective bonding legislation despite missing the deadline and last summer’s bonding tour.
“He said it was a great project for northern Minnesota,” Droba said, recalling his conversation with the governor.
“That’s just the governor trying to get reelected,” Bates countered.
Whatever the case, the fate of the project figures to come during a legislative special session. It would reimagine a park that’s gone relatively untouched for decades and shows it.
“All of this is playground equipment I played on as a kid,” Droba said, before explaining the motivation for revitalizing the park in the center of the city.
“The argument (from residents) is to bring new people in,” he said. “But my counter to that is we’re not providing them with anything new.”
The plan is to raze the deteriorating hockey arena, leaving the city with an indoor sheet at Bronco Arena, and build a community and senior center that would also feature a gymnasium and walking track.
A sledding hill would be built on-site using spoils from earth work, and a single baseball diamond and outdoor rink would be rebuilt and featured in the park, along with a dog park. In summers, portable skate park equipment would fill the ice rink.
And with outdoor tennis and basketball courts in better use at other parks within city limits, the ones in Kerry Park would be replaced with a splash park aimed at attracting young families to be built using money raised by the local Rotary Club.
The city has offered $1.1 million of its sales and use tax to leverage the $15 million bonding proposal.
The city’s money would go toward utility and infrastructure improvements, including rebuilding roads around the park for better access and traffic flow for when Kerry Park is in use as an emergency location as it is currently.
“We’re literally talking about this entire footprint and space,” Droba said. “Redoing it and making it more conducive for emergency settings.
Because Kerry Park plans continue to morph and have been through various iterations, the false narrative that the city wants to simply build another hockey arena was born.
“I get beat up all the time about me wanting an arena,” Droba said. “I want no arena. What I want is an area of our community that makes sense for everyone to utilize.”
Back at the Coffee Landing Cafe, Heinle was asked about the vibe in town. It’s one that seemed to be characterized by resilience at the end of the line.
“It’s the beginning of the line, too,” Heinle said of her city. “We are ‘Minnesota nice’ at its finest — the whole town. Once you walk into the coffee shop, you’re not a stranger to me. I’m going to look at you.”