Ely angles for state funding: After meetings with Dayton, lawmakers, mayor voices optimism

by Tom Coombe -

Ely city officials have been persistent as they’ve pursued state funding for a pair of long-discussed projects.
It looks as if that persistence may be paying off.
Mayor Chuck Novak voiced optimism at Tuesday’s council session, and in an interview later in the week, that state money would flow to Ely for the development of a trailhead at Ely’s west entrance, and to complete the 17th Avenue East infrastructure project at the opposite end of town.
The city is angling for up to $1.5 million in state bonding for the trailhead, while the state’s transportation and economic development fund could be tapped for another $1.3 million for 17th Avenue East.
Novak spent several days in St. Paul last week, meeting with area legislators and lawmakers from other districts, and gaining a private sit-down with Gov. Mark Dayton.
According to Novak, Dayton offered his support for the trailhead project.
“He asked me what the (cost) was and asked his staff member if they had much room left in bonding money he was submitting,” said Novak. “The answer was ‘yes,’ and he basically said let’s put it in there... I got the impression he was very willing to support us.”
Novak said House members including State Rep. Rob Ecklund (D-Int. Falls) are behind the project, and the information has also been presented to State Sen. Tom Bakk (D-Cook).
“I feel Sen. Bakk will support us, so we have the governor, the House and the Senate,” said Novak.
Novak said he pitched a “three-in-one” value of establishing a trailhead on the west side as a place where three different trails, including the proposed Prospectors Loop ATV Trail, can come to a head in Ely.
The city has made the trailhead project a priority in its economic development goals and the initiative also ties in with efforts to expand Pattison Street to the west and accommodate future potential expansion at Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital.
Novak indicated he has received green lights in St. Paul.
“I didn’t get a single question on the House side,” he said.
Novak has also found an ally in Dayton, despite their sharp differences over the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mining project near Ely.
Last year, Dayton barred Twin Metals from accessing state lands for exploration, and he has backed the federal edict to reject the company’s long-held mineral exploration leases.
Novak and other Range officials have been sharply critical of Dayton, but they’ve found common ground in other areas.
“We have agreed to disagree (on mining),” said Novak.
Dayton’s initial bonding plan also included $1 million for the Prospectors Loop, and about $1.6 million to replace roofs on two classroom buildings at Vermilion Community College
Dayton has also shown a willingness to back the 17th Avenue East project.
While the city has secured funding to pave Miners Drive to 17th, it needs more funds to make various infrastructure upgrades and add sidewalks.
“Last year the governor had a staff member that really worked this hard,” said Novak.
While the project won’t be funded in the bonding bill, it could get state support through what’s known as “TED” funding.
“The transportation department oversees the transportation economic development fund,” said Novak.
If the city is able to access the fund, it could mesh the money with city infrastructure funds and a grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to advance the project.
“IRRRB Commissioner (Mark) Phillips is stepped up and waiting at the ready when we want to push the button on the project,” said Novak.