In the latest move to diversify the Iron Range beyond mining, the state will give four companies in the region $4.85million to expand their businesses and manufacturing operations.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) approved the funds late last week during a board meeting in Eveleth, Minn. State officials say the loans and grants will stimulate economic development and bring jobs to the region.

"I am very excited," said IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich during the board meeting. "These are existing businesses within our area that are growing. ... And our support will help them get more business, more international business and make sure that Minnesota is chosen for where they grow jobs."

The IRRRB said that the funds are expected to generate an additional $13 million in private investment, create 80 jobs and keep another 238 jobs in northeastern Minnesota, board members said.

The Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority received $2.5million, the largest of the five loans and grants. That loan will help complete a building that was partially constructed at the airport in Hibbing in 2006.

The idea, which the IRRRB funded with $1.6 million at the time, was for the 30,000- square-foot structure to entice industrial tenants to the site, who would rent, build out the rest of the property, and create jobs.

Shaun Germolus, executive director of the airport authority, said that it took nearly six years, but the group now has a long-term tenant that can bring jobs to the region.

During Thursday's meeting, Sertich admitted that the initial building went up at the worst possible time. "The building was built and the economy went into the tank," he said.

Now that the economy is doing better, the original vision can be carried out, Sertich said.

Thursday, the IRRRB approved its second loan for the site. The $2.5 million will be used to complete the building to the specifications of Detroit Diesel Remanufacturing (DMR).

DMR is in the process of signing an 11-year lease with an option to buy the building or lease it up to 20 years, Germolus said. DMR currently has four buildings in Hibbing and can use the additional space. The project will keep 97 employees and create 50 jobs over three years.

Other loans approved by the board included a $2 million loan to help Louisiana Pacific Corp. with a $7.05 million expansion project. The money will help rebuild a press, hire 17 workers and keep 112 existing employees.

The city of Keewatin will receive a $285,000 grant from the IRRRB for road and site work associated with Pro Blast Technology's $2.9 million expansion. That project will create 13 construction jobs and five permanent jobs and keep Pro Blast's eight existing employees working.

The Virginia Eveleth Economic Development Authority won approval for a $60,000 loan to help Premier Plastics expand its plant and diversify into making windshields for ATVs, boats and motorcycles. The total project cost is $310,000, IRRRB officials said. Premier Plastics expects to add five workers to its staff of 29.

Separately, Sertich announced that the board had approved $1.14 million in funds for U.S. Steel's Keetac mining/taconite projects.

The loan is the latest in a run of good news for the company. The United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel recently entered into a tentative labor contract that is expected to span three years.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725