More than than two dozen companies are vying to become the first legal medical marijuana producers in Minnesota.
Friday was the deadline for budding entrepreneurs to notify the Health Department whether or not they planned to apply for the job. Twenty-nine did so, although it's anyone's guess how many will actually apply, and put down the $20,000 nonrefundable application fee.
The larger-than-expected figure was a mixed blessing for the staff in the state's new Office of Medical Cannabis. It will mean a lot more research for the staff, who have until the end of November to evaluate the applicants, noted Assistant Health Commissioner Manny Munson-Regala. But, he said, it also means the state can set the highest possible standards and cherry pick the best applicants with the strongest business plans to set up the state's first two grow operations and manufacturing facilities.
"I feel a lot less worried now," said, Munson-Regala, noting that no money has changed hands yet. The number of people who say they want to apply and the number who actually do could be very different. But, "at least 29 entities have take the first step."
The application deadline is Oct. 3 and the state plans to name two manufacturers by Dec. 1.
Hundreds of people had expressed interest in becoming one of the two producers who will grow and refine the drug for distribution to patients statewide. But the hefty application fee is only one of the daunting hurdles facing would-be pot producers
"We will do everything within our power to ensure we get medical cannabis up here in northern Minnesota," said Jake Chernugal, a healthcare worker who is putting together his application with a team that includes his pharmacist father, a group of outstate investors and the Bemidji chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
If selected, Chernugal's company, Headwaters Health Center Medical Cannabis Manufacturers, would have just months to set up an operation, begin growing their crop, hire staff and set up the production facilities to begin distilling the drug into pill and liquid form. He's hoping the family business, MedSave Family Pharmacy, which operates a facility to process herbal remedies for the store, will give him an edge on the production side.
"We understand that this could be a very short lived process for us. We could submit our submit our application on the first of October and within 30 days be like, 'Nope. Sorry,'" Chernugal said. "We understand that. That's the risk we're willing to take, because we believe in that and we believe that the people up here in the north country really need access to this medicine."
The timetable is so tight, companies are lining up community approval to set up marijuana manufacturing facilities before they have state approval.
Already, Willmar and Cottage Grove have approved plans to site marijuana grow facilities in their communities. The Bemidji city council was set to take up Chernugal's request this week, but the debate was delayed by the discovery of a Head Start center located too close to the original site he had selected.
LeafLine Labs LLC, a startup that includes members of the Bachman's flower and garden store chain, won Cottage Grove's preliminary site plan approval this week. The company is hoping to set up shop in a local office park, if the state gives its blessing.
"People keep calling it a 'pot farm.' It's not a pot farm," said Cottage Grove City Administrator Ryan Ryan Schroeder, after the city council approved LeafLine's detailed proposal. "I would equate it to a pharmaceutical plant that Eli Lilly or Merck would set up...They will be converting plant materials to medicine."
Blisteringly fast internet service is coming to Bemidji and a 5,000-square-mile swath of northern Minnesota.
A rural cooperative, Paul Bunyan Communications, has spent the past decade quietly laying the foundations of a $150 million gigabit fiber optic network, dubbed the "GigaZone," that will be one of the largest and fastest rural high-speed networks in the nation, starting early next year.
"This might be viewed as, 'Wow, we have faster Internet.' But it's so much more than that," said Paul Bunyan general manager Gary Johnson.
The new network will offer thousands of homes and businesses in five northern counties access to internet service 100 times faster than average. Jubilant economic development officials in the region are already spreading the word that some of the fastest internet connections in the nation are coming to communities like Bemidji, Grand Rapids and Walker.
"When I visit with companies looking at locating to the Bemidji area, I always get two questions, The first is about talent -- do we have the talent to support their companies -- and secondly, do we have broadband to support them," said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji, the region's joint economic development commission.
The cooperative will begin offering 1 gigabit internet speeds to customers in Bemidji early next year and will expand the service across its 5,000-square-mile coverage area over the next few years. That service area stretches from Bemidji to the Canadian border to Grand Rapids and Walker.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who has been pushing for statewide broadband access, welcomed the coming GigaZone. As many as a quarter of homes in Minnesota still lack access to high-speed Internet.
"Border-to-border access to reliable cell phone and high-speed internet coverage is essential to Minnesota's continued economic growth," Dayton said in a statement Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., called the rural gigabit network "a game changer" for the region.
"Expanding broadband is a great equalizing force for boosting rural economies," Klobuchar said in a statement. "Today, you don't need to live off a major highway or in a bustling city to find a good job, start a new business or get a high quality education, but today you do need a high-speed internet connection."
There are a number of gigabit fiber optic networks around the nation -- Century Link announced plans this summer for a super high speed network in the Twin Cities -- but most of them are in urban areas. Paul Bunyan Communications, which started in the 1950s when no one else seemed interested in running phone lines between far-flung homes and communities in Northern Minnesota, decided to take the same leap with high-speed broadband.
"We're here because no one wanted to serve this are in the first place," Johnson said. "That's in our DNA. We're here because others wouldn't do it and now we're reliving that with broadband."
It remains to be seen how many of Paul Bunyan's customers are willing to pay $100 a month for faster Internet. The economics of the network "are tough," he said, but "we've just got to make it happen. It's what our members need."
Gov. Mark Dayton, who recently accused North Dakota officials of kicking sand in Minnesota's face, says it's time for the two sides to "forge a more constructive working relationship."
That relationship has been strained by a $2 billion flood control project that would protect Fargo from the flood-prone Red River of the North by sending floodwaters spilling across Minnesota farmland instead.
After several terse exchanges, the two sides sounded a more conciliatory note in recent days.
The officials in charge of the flood control project have pledged to halt most of their construction work until Minnesota completes a detailed environmental assessment of the project. In a letter Monday, Dayton said he hoped officials' "courteous sentiments" will be backed up by actions, like adding more Minnesotans to the nine-member board that is governing the project.
"As my Mother always told me, 'Actions speak louder than words,'" Dayton wrote in a letter to Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo. "The Authority's future actions will determine, far more than its words, whether better relations are established with parties and people who are now estranged from it. I hope that cooperation can be achieved."
Both sides agree that that there's a pressing need for flood control measures along the Red River, which has flooded 19 times in the past 21 years, causing millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses around bustling Fargo.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing a massive project that would dig a diversion ditch around Fargo and place a dam across the Red to back millions of gallons of floodwater into the prairie and farmland south of Fargo and Moorhead.
Congress has authorized the project, but Minnesota is holding off on approval until the DNR completes a lengthy environmental impact study of the diversion, which could cause flooding around Minnesota farms and communities that currently sit above the Red's natural flood plain.
When North Dakota forged ahead with plans to build a ring levee around several small North Dakota towns that would be in the path of the diverted floodwater, Minnesota officials took it as a slap at this state's regulatory authority.
"We...heard, loud and clear, your concern that we had not adequately respected Minnesota's process," Vanyo wrote in a letter to Dayton on Sept. 8. Initially, the diversion authority had argued that North Dakota has every right to undertake a construction project on its own soil without Minnesota's approval. "This certainly was not our intention."
Vanyo offered to scale down the levee construction around the North Dakota towns of Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke, to delay construction of the diversion channel around Fargo until Minnesota completes its environmental impact study and to add more regional representing to the diversion authority board which currently has only two Minnesotans among its nine members.
He also pledged to work to resolve the lawsuit that has been filed against the project -- and which the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has supported.
"We might not be able to agree on everything even after we take all of the steps I have outlined above," Vanyo wrote, "but I hope we can agree that we are all better served if we can obtain permanent flood control for our communities as soon as possible."
In response, Dayton thanked him for the offer to limit construction work for now, and pledged to compete the environmental study as quickly as possible. The state currently expects to complete the study in May 2015.
"I share your desire to forge a more constructive working relationship between the State of Minnesota and your Authority," Dayton wrote. "I wish you well with your expressed desire to put an end to that lawsuit."
A vandalism spree that sickened visitors to a Faribault cemetery turned out to be the handiwork of two girls ages 10 and 11 who were apparently trying to hurt a teenage boy. Faribault police Capt. Neal Pederson said the girls painted vulgar words and the boy's phone number on about a dozen markers. Visitors to the cemetery on Monday were the first to notice the graffiti and call police.
A detective followed up on the phone number and spoke to the boy, who said he suspected two girls who have been bullying him were trying to get him in trouble.
The girls admitted the damage; they didn’t give any indication of where they got the idea to vandalize grave markers, said Pederson. “We were all kind of trying to wrap our head around that,” he said. The Rice County attorney's office will determine if the girls are petitioned into juvenile court or sent through a diversion program.
The defaced markers included that of Evelynn Bauernfeind, a six-year-old girl who died two years ago of lifelong heart complicatoins. Her family has set up a website to help pay for restoration of her grave marker.