Mesabi Tribune

By Marie Tolonen

If all goes according to plan the City of Chisholm could break ground on a long awaited building to house the city’s emergency services yet this year.

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) announced on Thursday that they have secured $3.5 million in federal funding to improve Chisholm’s public safety and emergency services infrastructure with the construction of a new emergency services building to house the city’s fire department, police department and city-run ambulance service.

The city has selected a site for the proposed building on the east end of town in the vicinity of the former wastewater treatment plant building.

Klobuchar and Smith have 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 DCS process, Klobuchar and Smith have considered project proposals and advocated for funding in close coordination with leaders from across the state.

“Improving public safety and emergency services infrastructure is critical to ensuring the safety of our communities,” said Klobuchar in a press release. “I’m proud to have worked with local leaders in Chisholm to secure these vital resources to build a new public safety facility, and I look forward to continuing to partner with those in the community to address public safety needs.”

Smith echoed her sentiments.

“The current public safety building in Chisholm dates back to the days of horse-drawn fire engines; it’s well past time for an upgrade,” Smith said. “These funds will help construct a new, up-to-date building for fire, ambulance, and police services. I’m proud of our work to secure this funding, which will improve public safety and directly benefit Minnesotans.”

Chisholm Mayor John Champa said he was “thrilled” when he learned the city was approved for the much needed funding to replace the 114-year old building the police and fire departments are currently operating out of.

“This is a big win for the whole Chisholm community as we continue working to improve public safety,” Champa is quoted as saying. “Senators Klobuchar and Smith have been strong partners in this endeavor, and I appreciate their support as we move forward to build a new Chisholm Public Safety Building.”

The project was introduced several years ago as a building to house the police and fire department, and more recently was amended to accommodate the now city-run ambulance service – bringing all of the city’s emergency services together under one roof.

In an interview on Thursday, Champa said the $3.5 million along with the $1.9 million the city received in state bonding money in October 2020 would go a long way toward the goal of raising the estimated $8.9 million needed for the project.

“Every penny helps,” Champa said.

In the meantime, the mayor said the city continues to explore grant opportunities for the remainder of the funding, and is also considering a low-interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Inevitably we may have to borrow a little money,” Champa acknowledged.

For more than a decade, city officials have realized the need for a new building to replace the current firehall built in 1908, located on the corner of Lake Street and Third Avenue due to safety concerns, and the fact that the city has to special order its fire trucks in order to fit them into the firehall.

Firefighters have little wiggle room when driving firefighting equipment in and out of the narrow doorways of the firehall.

Issues with the current building really came to the forefront about six years ago, when a hole was discovered in the floor of the firehall right where the firetrucks park. The fire trucks were temporarily relocated to a bus garage owned by the local school district while repairs were made.

The location of the firehall is a source of safety concerns as the large firefighting vehicles have to enter and exit the hall right onto a busy intersection, with a high volume of traffic and pedestrians.

There are also concerns with the space the police department operates out of on the second floor of the building. It’s not handicap accessible, and there are issues with diesel exhaust entering the space when the fire department vehicles are moved in and out, and the basement of the building has structural issues and floods when it rains, resulting in issues with mold and odor. These issues were brought to light during a visit by the State Bonding Committee a couple of years ago.

Chisholm Police Chief Vern Manner said his officers do their job regardless of where they are housed out of, but having a new, modern facility that doesn’t have the issues of the current building would be a welcome change.

“It’s something that’s long overdue that the citizens deserve,” Manner said.

Chisholm Fire Chief Chris Masucci said in addition to the fire fighting vehicles having to be special ordered, the current space isn’t adequate to accommodate all of his department’s equipment.

A side-by-side and other rescue gear owned by the department is stored in a separate city-owned space.

“It should make us more efficient,” Masucci said of the proposed new building. “We’re going to be able to house all of our equipment under one roof, which we don’t get to do right now. When we order trucks it’ll help us serve our community better, because we can order what we need rather than what we can fit in the firehall.”

Masucci said he’s hoping a new firehall will also help with recruiting and retaining firefighters. At present the department has 23 firefighters and is hoping to have 27 within the next couple of weeks.

Manner agreed that a new building may play a role in recruitment and retention, particularly with the younger officers. The police department is currently at eight members — four down from a full roster, according to Manner.

The Chisholm Fire Department has a total service and mutual aid area that covers almost 300 square miles. It provides services to Chisholm, Balkan Township, Unorganized Brown Community (Dewey Lake area). It also provides mutual aid to Hibbing, French Township, Evergreen Township, Kinney-Great Scott, Buhl, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service.

The service area for Chisholm is also popular for outdoor recreation which increases the fire department responses.

The Chisholm Police Department provides 24/7 police services in Chisholm and also provides police services for Buhl, under an agreement between the two cities.

In January the City of Chisholm changed from a hybrid model to a totally city-run ambulance service. The new City of Chisholm Ambulance Service provides basic life support services to the residents of Chisholm, Balkan and surrounding areas.

The ambulance service currently operates out of the ambulance garage adjacent to city hall in a building once owned by Longyear, Inc., located up the block from the fire and police building.

Chisholm Ambulance Director and Emergency Manager Jessica Davis said the ambulance service is very excited about the prospect of relocating and sharing a building with fellow first responders. Davis said the move will allow for greater interoperability and training amongst the departments and their personnel.

“Growing those relationships will yield smoother and more efficient operations in the field and during disasters,” Davis said. “The new facility gives us more room to grow and improve. I’m also very excited at the prospect of having some dorms so as to allow for personnel from further away to work shifts and increase our pool of talent even more. This is absolutely the right move to help Chisholm’s emergency personnel to grow right along with the city.”