As a proposed state park hangs in the balance, some wonder if influential backers are fueling Pawlenty's outdoor passion.
SOUDAN, MINN. - Now that the annual ice-out pool has been decided, folks on the pine-dotted rocky shores of Lake Vermilion have shifted their gaze to a higher stakes battle 220 miles south in St. Paul.
They're watching the Legislature's final days to see whether Minnesota's first new major state park in 30 years will win approval in the last-minute deal making.
Despite strong support from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the proposal to add 2,500 acres and 5 miles of southeastern Lake Vermilion shoreline to the state's roster of 72 parks has so far failed to find a spot in any spending bill. But the park is likely to be part of the discussion if another bonding proposal emerges before the session ends Monday.
The governor's motivation is the subtext for most of the debates about the park. In particular, some wonder whether influential Lake Vermilion property owners stoked Pawlenty's passion for the land or if he's motivated solely by what he says is "a chance to do permanent good."
"I've got a funny feeling it's going to go through because the governor wants it and he usually gets what he wants," said Conrad Rones, chairman of the Breitung Township Board. "Too many of the big shots are talking that way."
The 3,000 landowners on the massive, island-studded lake about 100 miles north of Duluth include a who's who of Minnesotans.
Property records show that the owners of Vermilion land include members of the Dayton and Naegele families as well as DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten, DFL Rep. Tom Bakk of Cook, retired DFL Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Doug Johnson, construction company president Mort Mortenson and David Frauenshuh, an Edina developer. Frauenshuh owns four parcels worth more than $1.8 million about 5 miles from the proposed park along the southern shore.
If the Legislature balks at acquiring the parcel, current owner U.S. Steel plans to develop more than 100 luxury homes there, adding boats and water scooters to the now serene corner of the lake.
"It's my personal belief that some rich person who's close to the governor owns property up here and did not want to see that U.S. Steel development and wanted to find a way for the taxpayers to stop it," said Mike Forsman, a DFLer from Ely and the chairman of the St. Louis County Board. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung denied that Frauenshuh, a prominent Republican donor, or other lake owners have the governor's ear in the Vermilion debate. The governor has not visited Frauenshuh's Lady Slipper Cottage on Echo Point nor received "any expression of concern" from Frauenshuh, McClung said.
Frauenshuh said Thursday that he'd love to see the park approved, but has never spoken about it to Pawlenty.
"It's such a beautiful spot of wilderness and I'd hate to have it turn into Gull Lake," he said, referring to the popular, but very developed, resort area near Brainerd. "But I've never talked to the governor or anybody about it and I've never lobbied it. People are making political stuff out of it."
In the past five years, Frauenshuh has contributed more than $300,000 to political causes, including $4,500 to Pawlenty's campaign, $67,175 to other Republican candidates and $218,000 to GOP party committees, records show.
Carol Larson of Surprise, Ariz., who sold her house to Frauenshuh for $435,000 five years ago, adding to his adjacent property on a rocky point, said he wouldn't gain any direct benefit from the state purchase.
"There's no way he can see the [proposed] park from there," she said. "You'd have to look beyond the point and way over around all these peninsulas."
Frauenshuh's lake home faces northwest while the proposed park is 5 miles away to the southeast, or about a 15-minute boat ride.
'I just kind of wonder'
Pawlenty held his ceremonial fishing opener on Lake Vermilion three years ago and surprised residents last July 4 when he showed up to run in the 10-kilometer race in nearby Tower.
"I usually have pretty good political instincts and all this passion from Pawlenty for a park, I just kind of wonder," said Johnson, who retired as one of the Legislature's most powerful members in 2002 and lives on Vermilion's southernmost bay.
"I just got to believe that there are some folks with influence and bucks on this lake pushing the park," said Johnson, who prefers the housing development because it would bring jobs and boost the tax base to help area schools.
Mortenson, the construction company president, has been going to his property on Alepo Island in the north part of the lake for 20 years and owns 176 acres on Pine Island -- property he has preserved through a conservation easement.
Mortenson said he's discouraged that the Legislature hasn't embraced the proposed park yet, but said he hasn't contacted Pawlenty. He said the park is needed to "create an opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to enjoy this beautiful lake."
'Once in a lifetime chance'
Some legislators have questioned why Pawlenty would push for Vermilion when he has left funding for existing state parks wanting.
"I find it very curious that this is where he is directing his attention. The price is too high and there are other needs with other parks," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chairwoman of a House environment finance division.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said e-mails to his office have run 10 to 1 against the park, with many asking why Pawlenty wants it.
Stephen Abrahamson, mayor of Tower, is among those who say the park would benefit average Minnesotans.
He said that Tower and Breitung Township have been studying the area's long-range plans since 2001 and that acquiring the U.S. Steel tract for the public was a priority long before Pawlenty announced his desire for the park last summer. The proposed park would add to the 5 miles of shoreline the state owns directly to the west at Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
At the Breitung Township office, assessor Jorgine Gornick said all eyes will be on the State Capitol this weekend. "Of course, everyone is watching -- on both sides," she said.
Rones, the township chairman, said he's for the park if the state compensates the township for the tax revenue it would lose in the deal.
Forsman, the St. Louis County Board chairman, insists that the state has been lowballing the amount of money it will take to build sewers and roads for the park. Abrahamson said he estimates the land will go for $20 million and park costs will run about $30 million. Forsman thinks the whole project will be closer to $100 million.
"Acquisition of the property is one thing," Forsman said. "I don't think there will ever really be a state park."
He thinks the land might simply sit idle under state ownership.
Abrahamson sees it differently.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to preserve northern Minnesota's premier lake," Abrahamson said. "There's plenty of spots for the wealthy on the lake; preserving this would help the average person."
Staff Writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this article.