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Minnesota state parks need $100 million in upkeep

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Minnesota's 72 state parks need more than $100 million to improve campgrounds, roads, water and sewer systems, and historic buildings, according to Courtland Nelson, the Department of Natural Resources' state parks director.

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"They're in fair condition," Nelson said. "The two areas we do well in are buildings where roofs need to be repaired, and when heating and cooling systems go south; we have dollars for replacement. But our campgrounds are on the other end. Some are 40, 50 or 60 years old. They've had hard use and need to be updated."

Coming to a head are the dual issues of finding enough money to maintain existing state parks and money for a new state park proposed at Lake Vermilion.

Today at the state Capitol, DNR officials will hold a hearing on state park funding issues, where they will announce how much is needed to upgrade existing parks.

On Tuesday, an 18-member Commissioner's Advisory Task Force will meet at Fortune Bay Resort Casino near Tower to unveil its vision of what a state park at Lake Vermilion might include.

Talk of a new state park at Lake Vermilion began last summer when U.S. Steel, which owns about 2,500 acres of land at the lake near Tower, said it would give the state an opportunity to buy the property instead of using it for a housing development.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DNR are supporting the state park concept.

"This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Nelson said. "We won't have an opportunity like this ever come along again -- to acquire a major piece of land on a pristine lake in northern Minnesota."

Three separate independent appraisals of the property are expected to be complete by the end of this month, said Terri Yearwood, DNR project manager.

There's been talk that the land could sell for $40 million.

Recommendations made by the advisory task force would be considered by the state parks and recreation division if an acquisition of the land is approved during the 2008 legislative session, Yearwood said.

Along with money to buy the land, money is needed to develop the park.

"We need development and acquisition dollars at the same time, because otherwise it could take years to get development dollars," Yearwood said. "The park is definitely a high priority for the [DNR] commissioner. This is definitely part of what the commissioner wants to do."

On Tuesday, the advisory task force will unveil a park plan that calls for keeping the lake as natural as possible; using the lake and its historical features as an educational tool; protecting the shoreline from development and roadways; using the lake's American Indian history as educational opportunity; and using the park to spur natural activities such as bird watching and outdoor recreation.

"Of the two, I'd far rather like to see it as a state park," said Rod McPeak, a lake resident and advisory task force member. "Everyone I've talked to up here would by far like to see it as a state park [than a housing development]. I also think it would bring a lot of business to the area, but I don't want to see this area become Wisconsin Dells with water slides and miniature golf courses all over the place."

State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he supports the park proposal, but only if development money comes with land acquisition money. He also wants the state to sell an equal amount of lakeshore property within St. Louis County that could be developed to offset the loss of property taxes that are paid by U.S. Steel to Breitung Township and St. Louis County on the lake land.

"I would personally like to enter discussions with U.S. Steel about the purchase price or gifting the land to the state," Bakk said.

State Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said money might be hard to secure.

"The bonding bill is only so big and there's always regional parity within the bill," Dill said. "MnSCU [state colleges and universities] will take a couple hundred million, which leaves $600 [million] or $700 million. Divide that up four ways for different parts of the state, and then take out money for Minnesota Steel infrastructure and the DECC and other regional projects. Does that leave $40 million to $70 million for a state park?"

There are already 1.2 million acres of wilderness within his district, Dill said, including more than 200,000 acres in Voyageur's National Park and other state parks along the North Shore.

"Why would we want to take some of the most expensive real estate in the state off the tax rolls for the benefit of a majority of people who don't live here?" Dill said. "We are not going to do this if there is not a package that includes development funding, and we are not going to do it unless we can hold St. Louis County harmless in a loss of tax money."

If the state and U.S. Steel can't reach agreement on a sale, U.S. Steel would continue plans for a housing development on the land, Yearwood said.

Lee Bloomquist can be reached weekdays at (800) 368-2506, (218) 744-2354 or by e-mail at lbloomquist@duluthnews.com.

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