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Pawlenty, U.S. Steel sign Lake Vermilion land deal

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Lake Vermilion
Lake Vermilion, near the Boundary Waters in northeastern Minnesota.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a top U.S. Steel executive today signed an $18 million deal to buy land to create a new state park on Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota. 

It will be the first state park created in Minnesota in 35 years. Officials say the park will provide incredible opportunities for visitors, but it will cost millions more to create.

  Pawlenty announced the deal in front of photos showing scenes of Lake Vermilion and an outline of the new park. Pawlenty characterized the newly purchased land as a unique opportunity for the state. He said it will give everyday Minnesotans a chance to visit a lake in northern Minnesota.

"People will see in the coming years and decades that this will be one of the most spectacular state parks in the United States of America," Pawlenty said. "We're proud it's in Minnesota."

It wasn't always certain that the park would be a reality. In 2007, Pawlenty announced his intention to purchase the 3,000 acres of land from U.S. Steel. After a series of negotiations, Pawlenty said it was unlikely a deal could be reached because the state and the company had vastly different appraisals of the land. U.S. Steel said after negotiations fell through last year that it intended to break up and develop the property. 

But earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature allowed the state to spend more for the land to get the deal done. U.S. Steel Executive John Goodish said the company could have made more money on developing the property but he's pleased it will be available for public use.

"Our market study said there was a market for the home sites and the homes that we had and I think that it would have been an opportunity that would have been lost for the state of Minnesota long-term had the state not bought it at this time," Goodish said. 

DNR STARTS PREP WORK ON SITE

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources say they'll now move forward with getting the park ready for public use. DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said they'll give public tours of the property this summer and try to get hiking paths available for use by the fall. He also said he hopes primitive camping will be allowed next spring. 

Holsten said the new park, which is adjacent to the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, will take about six years to be fully developed. The plan includes road construction, buildings, sewage treatment, cross country ski trails, camp sites, rock climbing and a swimming beach. 

He said converting the raw land to a park will cost upwards of $30 million.

"When we look at our large parks and the visitorships at Itasca and Gooseberry and Tettegouche, this one we feel will rate in that arena," he said. "So we're looking at the visitorship of 500,000 a year."

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said she's pleased that the state has finalized the deal to buy the land, and she wants the DNR to work quickly to get the park ready for public use. But Anderson worries the DNR will push for a plan that costs the state too much money. For example, Anderson said she isn't sure amenities like Wi-Fi hotspots are necessary.

"We need to focus on doing the basic really well in our state parks and making sure our budget supports that before we go down the road ... to start building Cadillacs when we can't even take care of our Chevys," Anderson said.

Anderson said existing state parks are already underfunded. She said the state needs to spend more money to maintain them.