Grand Marais gets growing pains

Cobblestone Cove
Cobblestone Cove condos were built last fall on the edge of the city beach. The sudden spurt of development took some residents by surprise, and they asked for a moratorium on downtown development until the city completes its visioning process.
MPR Photo/Staphanie Hemphill

The snow is finally gone. On clear days, the sun lights up the Grand Marais harbor and puts everybody in a good mood.

Stand with Lake Superior at your back and you can see the Gunflint Trail winding up the side of Sawtooth bluff, heading into the wilderness.

Turn around, and you're blinded by the sparkling blue water.

Beside the gravel beach, a new park is taking shape. Shrubs and trees sit in pots, waiting to be planted. There used to be a gas station here. The city bought the land to improve access to the beach.

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Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy owns several businesses in Grand Marais. He says it takes a lot of work to make a living in the remote town.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Tim Kennedy points out the brand new sidewalks and light posts. New sewers run under the streets.

And here's one of Kennedy's businesses, Birchbark Books.

"This was the old Ford garage," he says. "When my wife and I bought it, it had all plywood siding on the front, and inside of it was grease that was probably a half inch thick on the floor. She said, 'What are we going to do with this?' I said, 'I don't know, but it's a mess.'"

Kennedy is a busy man. He owns a realty company and some property in town. He and his wife own two shops.

"That's one of the things you pay for when you decide to live here," he says. "If you want to try to make a living, you figure out what you can do to make a go of it."

In addition to his businesses, Kennedy is a member of the city council, the planning commission, and the Economic Development Authority.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on a rebuilt and remodeled East Bay Suites. The city council updated its code to allow cooking facilities in hotel rooms, enabling the hotel to convert to vacation condominiums.
MPR Photo

Kennedy was land use planner for Cook County for twenty years.

That's why some people thought he should have raised an objection when the city council voted to change the definition of a hotel -- without holding a proper public hearing. The change opened the way for condos to be built downtown.

Kennedy says it was a technicality.

"It was just a lack of understanding of what needed to be done," he says. "There wasn't any intent; we did go back and hold the proper public hearing. It was after the fact, but we still went back and held the public hearing, and the issue was addressed at that time through the proper channels."

There's been a lot of debate about the development process in Grand Marais lately.

Grand Marais Light
People in the picture-perfect town of Grand Marais are struggling to decide how much development is good for them.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Workers are putting the finishing touches on one of the condos - the East Bay Suites. Back in the early 1900s, the East Bay Hotel was a home for lumberjacks and fishermen. For the last 50 years it was owned and run by a local family. The new owners -- based in St. Paul -- tore down part of the structure and remodeled the rest. They're selling vacation condos for up to half a million dollars. Most of the units sold before work even started.

Another new condo, Cobblestone Cove, is literally a stone's throw from the public beach. Last fall the developer tore down a house and garage, and built ten condos.

John Haluska lives on Artist's Point, right across the street from Cobblestone Cove. He says the condos are well-built, the architecture is tasteful, but they could have been built anywhere. It's just not Grand Marais.

Haluska describes Grand Marais as the "poster town" for Minnesota's sense of place.

"The Minnesota of the 50s and 60s -- in terms of the look and the feel of the place, and the friendliness of the place, and how it's a great blend of both a bit of commerce and a lot of nature, and good environmental stewardship. Great vistas and views, and something you'd be proud to pass on to your children."

Haluska says nobody wants Grand Marais to turn into just another tourist destination.

John Haluska
John Haluska says too many places on the North Shore have lost their character to development pressures. He is asking the Cook County Attorney to investigate possible conflicts of interest on the city council and planning commission.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"There's people who live here, actually, you know," he laughs. "It invites a lot of tourists simply because of the people who do live here, and the fact that it is a community that has existed since the late 1800s. And it hasn't lost its spirit or its character."

Haluska says there should be a moratorium on further development downtown until residents agree on a vision for the future. The city just hired a consultant to help create that vision. But the council rejects the idea of a moratorium.

Haluska and other critics say the council has been taken over by people intent on development. And they're asking the county attorney to investigate possible conflict of interest.

They point to Mayor Mark Sandbo as an example. He was manager of the East Bay Hotel when the city changed the law to allow it to convert to condos. Now he works for the company that manages the other lakeside condos, Cobblestone Cove.

Sandbo says there's no conflict of interest on his part. He says everyone in town benefits from the increased tax revenue on the two properties.

Mark Sandbo
Mark Sandbo is mayor of Grand Marais. He says the town needs development, to provide jobs for young families.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"You have to have a job," he says. "I don't know where the conflict of interest would come in. I don't own any of these things. I just work here."

Disputes about conflicts of interest are seldom heard in court. Jeannette Bach is research director at the League of Minnesota Cities. She says each case is unique.

"A city would need to take look at its individual situation," she says, "Taking a look at how that matches up against what the courts and the statutes have said might be a conflict of interest. It is a job of interpretation and it usually involves an attorney."

The Cook County Attorney says he's just beginning to study the matter.

A third condo will take the place of this old-fashioned motel, across the highway from the harbor in Grand Marais.
MPR Photo/Staphanie Hemphill

Mayor Mark Sandbo says he loves Grand Marais as much as other people do. But he says it's hard to make a living here. Many young people can't make enough to stay and raise a family. He has no hopes that a manufacturer would locate in this remote village. So he says the town has to accept some level of tourism-oriented development.

"I don't want to become another Vail. But Vail does draw a lot of people. I don't want to become another Wisconsin Dells. I don't want to become those things. And I don't think what we're doing is heading down that road."

But Cook County is attracting a lot of people. According to the 2000 census, it's the fastest-growing Minnesota county outside the metro area. It's a magnet for retirees, empty nesters, and people who can work from home. That's in addition to the people who can afford a time-share or a condo for their vacations.

The Grand Marais visioning process will start soon, and the consultant promises lots of public involvement.