REGIONAL — The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRR) on Tuesday awarded just over $7.1 million in grants and other funds affecting communities throughout the Taconite tax-break area. Projects funded included $461,900 for outdoor recreation at the Tower, which was the largest single item under the Trails portion of the grants approved this week.
The City of Ely will receive $130,755 to plan and design a new section of ATV trail and $150,000 for road improvements. Other northern St. Louis County communities awarded funding this week included Crane Lake, Breitung Township and the town of Babbitt, while the Ash Lake area will benefit from broadband funds provided by Paul Bunyan Communications for a fiber optic project in this northern community were awarded Orr.
IRRR officials said it uses some of its funds to help communities leverage other sources of state, federal and local dollars. In the end, the community project funding approved Tuesday is expected to mobilize a total of $83 million in total investment.
At the same time, the IRRR Board approved a fiscal 2023 spending plan totaling $52 million, which includes continued financial support for business development, public works infrastructure and broadband. The budget focuses on utilizing capital, improving quality of life, and preserving and creating jobs.
Specifically, the 2023 budget includes $21.3 million for public works infrastructure and business and industry, accounting for 40 percent of the budget. The agency stands ready to fill funding gaps for one-time federal dollars that are currently available.
The budget is also intended to spur economic development with $22.5 million in resources flowing through community and people development programs and supporting the Giants Ridge Recreation area.
The 2023 IRRR budget provides increased funding for several existing grant programs, including the Residential Redevelopment Program, whose funding will increase from $275,000 last year to $750,000 this year. Downtown building rehabilitation and corporate energy retrofit programs will add an additional $250,000 each this year. Meanwhile, both the EDA partnership and the Downtown Streetscapes programs have been zeroed out. The agency is also ceasing funding for its film incentive program, as well as its partnership with the Natural Resources Research Institute.
Specific local community development projects approved Tuesday include:
• $461,900 to help the City of Tower utilize $600,000 in funds from the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) to construct a trail link and trailhead near the city’s harbor just north of the highway . 169 bridge. As part of the project, the city will extend its main street to the East Two River and provide access and parking for the trailhead and planned kayak and canoe launch site. The project includes the construction of a toilet and other facilities near the trailhead and the development of a port site plan to support future construction of connecting trails in the region.
• $130,755 for the City of Ely to plan, design and build a portion of the Bear Run ATV trail that will connect Mud Creek and Wolf Lake roads to the Taconite Trail west of Ely. The trail is expected to provide a boost to resorts in the area as interest in ATV riding continues to grow. The project will be funded with an additional $150,000 from the state’s ATV account.
• $250,000 to Crane Lake Township to rebuild Bayside Drive from Handberg Road to the existing DNR boat access point at Crane Lake. The community will designate Bayside Drive as a community road and the proposed rebuild will meet county and community standards. The improved road standards will improve safety ahead of the proposed $2.7 million construction of a visitor center in Voyageurs National Park next to the boat launch.
• $200,000 to the community of Breitung as part of a $1.01 million project to replace water and sewage infrastructure in several areas including First Ave., Stuntz Bay Rd., Poplar St., Main Street, Church St. and Spring Rd. DNR, CDBG and the community will provide the remaining funds for the project.
• $250,000 to the City of Babbitt for Phase II construction of a new sewage treatment plant. The facility, parts of which are nearly 70 years old, has reached the end of its useful life and is not economically or technically feasible to refurbish. The MPCA indicated that a new low level mercury limit will be added to the operating permit for the next Babbitt facility. Therefore, the existing wastewater treatment plant must be replaced to meet the new permit limits. The project also includes lining or replacing old sewage collection system piping. The IRRR funding is just a small part of the $10.35 million project. The city has also received other state and federal grants, as well as a $3.7 million loan from the state agency for public utilities.
• $150,000 to the City of Ely for utility work and rebuilding of Pattison Street and E 9th and 10th Avenues and a roadway and utility widening for a new lane at Sibley Court Dr. The city is contributing $1.154 million to the project.
• $165,000 to the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade for the construction of a helipad and new docking system for the brigade’s emergency response. The brigade is contributing $40,000 in donations to the $205,000 project.
• $101,000 to Paul Bunyan Communications to provide broadband to up to 75 currently unserviced homes in the Ash Lake area. St. Louis County is providing $101,250 for the project, while Paul Bunyan is contributing $67,750.
While the projects ultimately received unanimous support from the IRRR Board of Directors, a $1.5 million position for development-related infrastructure for a new 132-room hotel adjacent to the Iron Trail Motors Event Center in Virginia drew questions from Senator Tom Bakk on yourself. “Are we subsidizing the construction of a hotel that will compete with existing ones?” he asked.
IRRR’s Chris Ismil responded, noting that funding will only go to public infrastructure to support the project. “There’s no bricks and mortar involved,” he said. The hotel project is expected to bring Virginia an estimated investment of $30.67 million.