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Push is on to get share of public works money

ST. PAUL - A battle is ready to erupt as public agencies across Minnesota seek a relatively tiny amount of state money.

Usually, public works funds such as those to fix public facilities, build trails, add to sewer systems and all kinds of other work are decided by the Legislature. That happened when lawmakers passed a nearly $500 million fix-up plan earlier this month.

But $47.5 million in the bill was not earmarked for specific projects, but available to applicants. That appears ready to set off a stampede among backers of $1.5 billion worth of projects that did not make it in the package the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton approved.

Projects will range from the relatively small to some that could take up most of the funds.

For instance, on the small end, Duluth officials want $4 million to renovate a baseball park and Wadena wants $4.75 million for a fitness center, in part to replace tornado-destroyed facilities.

Those small projects will compete with proposals such as a $35 million Rochester Mayo Civic Center expansion and $27 million for a St. Paul baseball field.

It will be up to Dayton and Commissioner Mark Phillips of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to decide how to dole out the money.

Even though details about how the money, to be obtained by the state selling bonds, will be split have yet to be completed, it is clear most applicants will go away empty-handed.

"Obviously, there were a lot of projects the governor wanted included in the bonding bill that now will have to compete for this little bit of money," said Dayton's spokeswoman, Katherine Tinucci.

Backers of various projects, often encouraged by their legislators, began making plans to apply for the money when the bonding bill became law May 11.

"Now that the cat is out of the bag in terms of this funding source, it's going to be a highly competitive process," said General Manager Craig Smith of the Duluth Huskies, which would play in the rejuvenated Wade Stadium. "St. Paul is going after this money, and I'm sure every other community in the state will want to get in on this, so we're going to do all we can to secure it."

The Wadena City Council decided to apply for funds to finish financing a wellness center.

"Anybody that's got a shovel-ready project will be applying, I think," Wadena Administrator Brad Swenson said. "If you take out just the projects that were not in the bonding bill that are similar to ours, there was St. Paul Regional Baseball Park, St. Cloud Civic Center, Mankato Civic Center, Minneapolis Nicollet Avenue rebuild, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Oakdale Veterans Memorial, Rochester Mayo Civic Center expansion, plus Wadena."

Swenson said the grant application process is an unknown.

"We don't know if this grant is going to take a month or six months," he said.

Kim Isenberg of DEED said the agency should have the process figured out in early June, so applications will not be accepted until then.

"We are working as swiftly as we can," Isenberg said. "We are very hopeful we can get some of these projects going yet this year."

While Commissioner Phillips, a Dayton appointee, is to decide what projects get funded, lawmakers gave him direction on how to decide. For instance, projects should create jobs, increase the local tax base, attract private investments and have local support.

Isenberg said the department is looking at other, more specific, criteria.

Dayton will have a say.

"I do expect that the governor will be engaged in the process," Tinucci said.

Rachelle Klemme of the Wadena Pioneer Journal and Jon Nowacki of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.