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Pawlenty touts 'renaissance' on Iron Range

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Pawlenty touts 'renaissance' on Iron Range
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

The Iron Range celebrated two large-scale, innovative projects on Wednesday, and officials touted the projects as symbols of a new economy emerging in northern Minnesota.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty spoke at the dedication of the Taconite Ridge wind farm on U.S. Steel property north of Virginia and at a celebration of progress at the Mesabi Nugget processing plant near Embarrass.

"This is part of a renaissance on the Range," Pawlenty said, speaking of both projects. "And I'll say you haven't seen nothing yet."

The first of 10 wind turbines at the Taconite Ridge site began producing electricity on Monday, moments after project manager Andrew Remus punched the "run" button on the turbine's computer console and the 315-foot-diameter rotor caught a breeze.

The remaining nine turbines should produce electricity by the end of June, Remus said, generating enough power to supply about 8,000 homes when all turbines are at peak production.

Pawlenty's mandate that state electrical utilities must produce 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025 "spurred us" into building the Taconite Ridge farm, said Minnesota Power Executive Vice President David McMillan.

But the company already had been looking for a suitable site to capture wind power -- and it continues to do so, McMillan said. Minnesota Power had proposed 20 wind turbines on land overlooking U.S. Steel's Minntac mine, though the project eventually was scaled back, McMillan said. Minnesota Power is talking with other mining companies, including Polymet, Cleveland Cliffs and Arcelor Mittal Steel about developing more wind energy centers, McMillan said.

Taconite Ridge is the first wind farm fully owned and operated by Minnesota Power, though the company imports wind-generated electricity from North Dakota.

Officials also celebrated "a promise delivered" to the east end of the Iron Range, said Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck.

The community reeled when LTV Steel Corp. announced in 2000 that it would soon cease production at the LTV taconite mine outside of Hoyt Lakes, cutting off jobs for about 1,400 mine workers. Then, Pospeck stood in front of Hoyt Lakes residents with tears in her eyes as she tried to explain how the community could survive.

On Wednesday, Pospeck helped usher in a new age of local mining.

The Mesabi Nugget plant, built as a partnership between Steel Dynamics of Indiana and Kobe Steel of Japan, should begin producing highly concentrated nuggets of iron ore in summer 2009, bringing more than 100 jobs back to the east Iron Range.

It will be the world's first iron nugget plant, said Shohei Manabe, head of the iron unit division of Kobe Steel. The ground breaking process will convert relatively low-grade taconite ore into nuggets with an iron content of 96 percent.

Producing a value-added product such as iron nuggets rather than the more-traditional taconite pellet is a big switch for the area's economy, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

But increased global demand for resources such as steel and wood has meant that companies from all over are showing a new interest in resource-rich northern Minnesota.

"I see it not only as stabilization, but [as] an expansion of the Range's economy for the foreseeable future," Bakk said. And, with rising energy prices making it more expensive to ship raw materials all over the world for processing, Bakk said he believes companies will profit by turning those raw materials into more-finished products right on site.

As Pospect passed Bakk among the hundred or so people gathered at the Hoyt Lakes Arena, she paused to share a moment of happiness that's been years in the making.

"It's been a long road,hasn't it?" Bakk said as he shook Pospeck's hand.

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