Phantom Woodsy Lakesy Park (a Minnesota story)

If you missed it, the state and U.S. Steel have reached a potential deal for the mining/steel-making giant sell a large chunk of land on Lake Vermilion to become a new state park. The Iron Range-area park was a rather unexpected proposal from Gov. Tim Pawlenty two years ago that stalled when U.S. Steel got cold feet about the land sale. The company has returned to the table with its new, higher land valuation and it appears an $18 million price tag is enough to get the issue back into the bonding bill discussion.

It’s not a done deal. $18 million is a lot in these contentious, cash-strapped times, especially in a bonding bill that requires support from the governor and legislature. State Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) makes some notable and skeptical observations to Politics in Minnesota. In a nutshell, he points to the fact that State Parks are already underfunded and that miles of existing state land on Lake Vermilion holds no amenities for camping or hiking as is. So we’re going to pay $18 million for something extra that we then have to maintain (I paraphrase).

This mnpACT post from Dave Mindeman proves to be a good read, but be warned that it quotes me and this may seem self-serving (I’m a sucker for links). Two years ago I joined many in asking why Pawlenty would propose new spending — something he rejects insofar as education or health care reform are concerned, or most Range bonding projects — for a park that local officials hadn’t asked for. The answer, a reasonable one, from those involved was that this is a one-time opportunity to preserve a pristine part of Lake Vermilion, a lake where development has escalated dramatically over the past 20 years. If the state didn’t buy and preserve this land it would be lotted off and sold for more private development leaving very little natural landscape in one of the most populated parts of the lake. (If you forgot, Lake Vermilion is the “destination” lake on the Iron Range, the site of high-scale development by successful people both on and off the Range).

On one hand local governments lose potential property tax revenue from one of the few high value locations around, on the other current residents now get to keep a good view and the lake will take less environmental abuse. Mindeman points out that current residents — often in high value lake homes — will see rising property values as a result of the decision and I must admit, that’s true (though, they’d counter that they will also see higher individual property taxes, no thanks to Pawlenty).

It’s worth a question as to how much the property values and wishes of these Lake Vermilion residents and cabin owners influenced the prioritization of the Lake Vermilion park. It almost seems like there was someone well connected in the area who figured out the magic buttons to push to get this thing a green light. I’m going to feign ignorance until I can explore this more.

The project serves a different people in different ways: 1) the land is preserved for future generations, 2) Pawlenty gets a legacy project, 3) Lake Vermilion residents see less congestion on the lake and keep higher property values, 4) the DNR gets a new park to operate, and 5) U.S. Steel rolls in the Benjamin$, the way they always do. Who could be against this? (Local governments? In case you missed it, they don’t count).

Nevertheless, no one was asking for any of it before U.S. Steel announced it no longer wanted the land. And, for all the money, why make a perpetual budget commitment in times when it would seem we can’t afford it? If it’s worth it, why is MinnesotaCare not worth it? Are we dealing in the value of government actions, or simply in raw dollars?

Skepticism aside, it seems possible that Lake Vermilion State Park could become a reality. I don’t doubt that Gov. Pawlenty would further be willing to talk options on how to keep the Vikings in Minnesota through some kind of stadium deal, probably one that involves local taxes instead of state taxes.

So we get a State Park. I like the idea of state park. Who doesn’t?

We get to keep the Vikings. I like the idea of the Vikings. Who doesn’t?

But that’s it. The bonding bill could end up being small and ineffectual, and the budget? HA HA HA! There will be no budget deal. Only a thousand lashes from Satan’s cat-o-nine tails for anyone who tries.

Remember, in the 21st century Minnesota we can accomplish anything, so long as it seems arbitrary. The other stuff is for the courts and the kids to sort out.

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