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Vermilion a vote away from becoming a park

ST. PAUL -- Vermilion State Park is a technicality away from reality.

But that technicality requires a legislative fix before the northeastern Minnesota lakeshore property becomes the state's largest park.

"This will provide an up-north, at-the-lake experience at world-class quality levels that are accessible and affordable to everyone for many, many generations to come," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday in announcing that the state has agreed to pay U.S. Steel $18 million for 3,000 acres next to the lake and adjoining Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

"We will have 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline," Pawlenty said of the two parks.

However, he added, he must ask the Legislature to approve spending the money. The price was more than a state-hired appraiser set as the land's value, which under existing law would prohibit the purchase. So Pawlenty wants lawmakers to waive the price cap.

Legislators approved spending $20 million for the park two years ago, but the appraisal requirement is in another law.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks removing the price cap is a bad idea, an indication that Pawlenty may have a Vermilion fight on his hands.

Pawlenty would not say how much the state's appraisal listed as a fair purchase price, but said the deal was reached for a price between what the state wanted to pay and U.S. Steel wanted.

U.S. Steel's appraisal for the land apparently was $20.3 million, and Pawlenty said the $2.3 million over what the company wanted will be treated as a donation from U.S. Steel to the state.

The governor said if lawmakers do not approve his request to spend the money, U.S. Steel will begin developing the land for housing this summer.

The deal comes just less than a year before Pawlenty leaves office, and the Vermilion project has been one of his top priorities.

"It will be one of the most spectator state parks in the United States," Pawlenty said.

Vermilion would be the first new state park in more than 30 years, and the largest in Minnesota.

Since the Legislature authorized spending $20 million for the park, that leaves $2 million to begin to establish the park. However, state officials say it will take several million dollars more before the park is ready for the public.

Pawlenty said the park is needed because cabins are not available, or too expensive, for Minnesotans of average means. And, he added, there are fewer resorts.

"For many people, the outdoors, the access to the outdoors, is a huge part of Minnesota's tradition and quality of life experience," he said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.