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Public bodies assessing needs for joint garage

Plans for a joint public works garage and maintenance facility are in the formative stages but moving forward.Representatives from several public entities are talking about working together in an effort both to save money and put their public works operations under one roof.Their last session, held Feb. 27 at the Morse Town Hall, ended with support for the project, at least in concept. Next, each entity will come up with its expectations and desires for the facility."What we decided is that everybody will go back to their respective boards or councils and determine what they need for square footage," said St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman. "Things like how many vehicles they'll have there, how much space they'll need, more specific things like that. I think there is some excitement that this is something we should do."The county, Ely, Winton, Morse Township and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are among the public bodies that could be involved in the project.Similar projects, bringing the county together with both the Minnesota Department of Transportation and local governments, have worked in Hibbing and Pike Lake, located just outside of Duluth.Supporters say the facilities provide savings to taxpayers and avoid duplication of government services.Proposals calling for a joint public works facility have been in Ely's comprehensive plan for eight years, and the concept has been ranked as a priority by the Joint Powers Board, which includes Ely, Winton and the Ely School District.Forsman decided to press the matter this year, amid county plans for expansion of its facility on the west end of town and as Ely, Morse and MnDOT continue to operate in separate facilities.If the project goes forward, it could free up areas on Ely's main street - such as the county facility on the west entrance to town - for economic development."From my standpoint, should this project happen I think it would really clean up main street and provide some real obvious efficiencies," said Forsman.Ely, Morse, Winton and St. Louis County have shown the most interest in the project, while state officials - at least thus far - have shown less enthusiasm for an immediate move."MnDOT did say that their building is in very good condition," said Forsman. "And their needs may probably be more in the future. They did ask that they'd like to be built into the project so in the future when they look to move we would have space. Right now they say their needs are about eight years out."But political pressures could move the state into the joint effort more quickly, according to Forsman.Vermilion Community College, which like MnDOT is part of a state agency, has shown interest in the MnDOT facility for future college expansion."It could very well be that the state's needs would change if they knew they had a willing buyer that was also a state agency," said Forsman.There has been general support for finding a large area, anywhere from 20-40 acres and most likely outside the city limits, for a facility that could house snowplows, sanding trucks and other vehicles owned by the various government entities.No specific sites have been targeted, although Forsman said there are several possibilities around the areas."We looked at a site southeast of Ely on Highway 21," said Forsman. "There's land just south of the old airport. If you pull out a map you see quite a few possibilities there."Hibbing's garage, which includes city, county and MnDOT vehicles as well as a headquarters for the State Patrol, cost $7 million. Duluth, county and MnDOT trucks are at the Pike Lake facility, which was built for $5.5 million.Costs of an Ely facility would depend both on the size and the number of entities that participate in the project.Ownership, funding and location issues are among the key hurdles, and the timeframe for any action is not immediate.Representatives will return to the table March 25 with another meeting at the Morse Town Hall.

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