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State gets deed to Vermilion parkland

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's newest park is a reality, and visitors may be able to make limited use of it later this year.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an agreement this morning to pay U.S. Steel $18 million for 3,000 acres along Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota. Joining Pawlenty at the signing was Vice President John Goodish of U.S. Steel, who handed over the deed to the land.

"This will be a magnet for Minnesotans and others," Pawlenty said, estimating that tens of thousands of visitors a year will head to the new park.

However, development of the park could take more than a decade, he said, and just what amenities will be provided remains in question. A task force is to make recommendations by year's end.

The state has just $2 million for initial development. The Department of Natural Resources' first job is to make sure the new park is safe for visitors, and the department is looking for cultural and other historic areas that need to be preserved.

Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten said some public tours will be allowed in the park this summer, and limited trails should be ready by fall. Boaters already may explore the lakeshore.

Facilities such as a visitors' center and campground must await completion of a master plan and funds appropriated by the Legislature.

Pawlenty, who said the park will be one of the most beautiful in the country, first proposed it in 2007.

The park almost did not happen. The state and the steel company haggled over the price in extended negotiations and U.S. Steel was ready to sell off the land for private development, including home lots.

Goodish said that in the long run U.S. Steel could have made more money selling the land for homes.

The land includes five miles of shoreline. The new park will be administered along with adjoining Soudan Underground Mine State Park, with another five miles of lake front property.

Part of the park's opposition came from critics who said that $20 million to $40 million would be needed to develop the park, and that money is not available. Holsten said that development cost is not known, but estimated it could be $30 million.

Another criticism was that Soudan already is on Vermilion and it under used. However, Holsten said the Soudan park is oriented toward the historic underground mind, a different mission than the Vermilion park.

Holsten said he could not estimate how much the park will cost to run; that will be determined by facilities the state provides. However, he said, modern technology should mean the park will be less costly than the state's most expensive one, Itasca, which costs $2.5 million a year to operate.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.