Proposed Lake Vermilion State Park gets new life

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A proposal to create a state park on Lake Vermilion got new life with the announcement Friday that the state has agreed to pay United States Steel Corp. $18 million to acquire the scenic parcel in northeastern Minnesota.

Though the deal still needs legislative approval, prospects for the 3,000-acre park, envisioned as one of the crown jewels of the state park system, have improved considerably after some supporters were on the verge of giving up. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel had been ready to sell off the largely untouched land for private development.

The land includes five miles of undeveloped shoreline on a pristine 40,000-acre lake dotted with 365 islands that provides easy access to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It sits next to the existing Soudan Underground Mine State Park near Tower.

Department of Natural Resources officials said limited daytime use could begin in mid- to-late summer 2011. The earliest the park could be fully operational would be sometime in 2012.

“We’ve got big ideas about what we’d like to do for this new type of a state park and appealing to new types of users,” said Courtland Nelson, director of the agency’s Parks and Trails Division.

While Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed the park more than two years ago, negotiations over the land had made little headway until the last couple months, Department of Natural Resources officials told reporters.

“This has been a long time coming,” Commissioner Mark Holsten said.

Holsten and Nelson said they plan to work with legislators in the coming weeks to get the necessary approval so they can close on the purchase this spring. The main issue is that while the 2008 Legislature approved up to $20 million in borrowing authority for the park, it barred the state from paying more than 12 percent of the land’s appraised value.

U.S. Steel had the land appraised at $20.3 million. Holsten said he couldn’t disclose how much the state’s appraisals concluded it was worth. However, state Sen. Tom Bakk, who represents the area and lives on the lake, said the state had one appraisal that valued it at $14 million.

If the Legislature waives the restriction, the Department of Natural Resources will still have $2 million in bonding money to do the initial planning, plus part of the $3 million included in the 2010 bonding proposal Pawlenty announced Friday that’s earmarked for parks. The department would then present a master plan to the 2011 session and seek additional money to develop the park’s facilities. Nelson said the department’s initial estimate for that phase had been $25 million to $30 million, but added that the final figure might get reduced.

Some local officials have opposed the park because of the limited property tax base in the area. About 60 percent of the land in St. Louis County is government owned, so using the land for high-end lakefront homes would have meant a significant boost in tax revenues.

But Bakk, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said he’s pleased with the land deal and will support the changes needed to let it go through, as long as there’s a plan to ensure that communities in the area see some economic benefits.

“These kinds of opportunities do not come along very often,” Bakk said.