Mesabi Tribune

By Jim Romsaas

A pair of Iron Range projects are nearing the finish line after receiving federal funding, which was secured by U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber.

Klobuchar was at the Chisholm Fire Hall Friday to talk about the $6 million in funding for the projects, which will soon be under construction.

Klobuchar recently helped secure $3.5 million that will go towards the construction of a new 23,000-square-foot Chisholm public safety facility. This facility will house the city’s police and fire departments, as well as ambulance services.

She also helped secure $2.5 million to create a centralized water treatment plant to serve several East Range communities, update drinking water systems and reduce utility costs for residents.

“It may not be the flashiest project, but updating the wastewater treatment facility is critically important for those in and around Aurora and the East Mesabi region,” Smith said in a news release last week. “I am proud of our work to secure this funding, which will cut utility costs for Minnesotans and strengthen our water infrastructure.”

Klobuchar called the water project “an innovative idea,’’ which allowed Aurora, the Town of White, Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes to pool their resources.

Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor said Aurora and the Town of White are spearheading the $24.4 million, multi-phase water project that has been a long time in the making. There was a “common perception that we were all struggling with our water systems on the East Range,’’ he added, and Aurora and Town of White are now envisioned to be the first customers. However, “the whole system is being built to accommodate the needs of all four communities on the East Range.’’

The project moves the water source to a more central, higher quality, better quantity site on the old Embarrass mine pit lake that is adjacent to The Quarry golf course, Gregor stated. From there, raw water will be piped to a new water treatment plant in Aurora next to the existing water tower. The tower and distribution systems will be retained.

When completed, the water can go to all four cities, but right now it will just go to Aurora and Town of White, Gregor said. Hoyt Lakes is the most poised to connect later on, while Biwabik will probably join the system for raw water at least, he said, and maybe for the water treatment.

The water project will be funded from a number of sources, according to Gregor.

That includes:

— $2.5 million in federal money.

— $7.5 million in state bond funds.

— $5 million grant (which could possibly grow to $8 million) has been more or less guaranteed from the Water Infrastructure Fund, which is administered by the state’s Public Facilities Authority.

— Another $1 million appears to be provided by the Corps of Engineers.

— Community Development Block Grant dollars (a modest amount) are also slated for the project.

— The Department of Iron Range Resources is standing back to see what the final gap in funding is, Gregor said.

— The community members will also take on debt of about $5 million.

— Water rates will be increased to a “manageable” level, as well.

As far as when construction will start, Gregor said bids could be sought in the latter part of summer and actual work on the project will likely begin next spring.

The water project was prioritized highly by Klobuchar.

She said it’s hard to imagine how hard it is to upgrade water infrastructure, but it is still vitally important.

“No matter how many people you have in an area, they have to have safe water.’’

Regarding the new public safety facility for Chisholm, the project will replace the current facility that was built in 1908.

Chisholm Mayor John Champa said the project is expected to cost $8.9 million and will be built on the east end of town in the vicinity of the former wastewater treatment plant building. The plans and specifications are not quite done at this time, but the mayor still expects construction to start in about three months, or at least before the snow flies.

The Chisholm project also has a number of funding sources, which are as follows:

— $3.5 million in federal money.

— $1.9 million in state bonding money.

— $1.5 million via a 40-year loan through the USDA.

— A commitment from the Department of IRRR. Champa said the IRRR would like to be in last on the project.

“We’re probably a million dollars away, and we continue to try to find sources just so we don’t have to pay for it ourselves,’’ said Champa, who added the city does have some money in the bank.

The mayor remains confident all the funding will be secured.

“It’s kind of a reality. … The finish line was a mile away and it's like right there right now.’’

Klobuchar has been actively involved in securing this federal funding for projects benefiting communities across the state through a process called “Congressionally Directed Spending” (CDS). During the CDS process, Klobuchar considered project proposals and advocated for funding in close coordination with leaders from across the state. Projects are expected to receive funding over the next several months.

At the fire hall, Klobuchar said the Chisholm project probably wouldn’t have been prioritized as high as it was if former state Rep. Tony Sertich hadn’t brought her to see the fire hall many years ago.

“Having local officials being able to partner with federal is really key and has been key for a long time in Northern Minnesota."