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County commits funds to tackle blight

Blight could one day be a thing of the past in Carlton County.

Commissioners unanimously endorsed a ground-breaking Neighborhood Revitalization Program at Tuesday's meeting of the Carlton County Board. The program will provide much-needed funding to upgrade vacant and substandard buildings in the county's neighborhoods and business districts. Partnering with local units of government, non-profit organizations and other public entities, the program is designed to help provide the financial wherewithal to address areas of blight and return them to viability once again.

"I am excited to get this started as I believe we can provide the stimulus to get some of our sorriest sites cleaned up," said Connie Christenson, Carlton County economic development director.

The program will designate an initial $100,000 of county funds allocated to it for such purposes by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) for 2017. Christenson said she plans to meet with the Small Cities Program, the Demolition Program of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and individual communities to help leverage additional funding for the program.

One of the primary targets to be focused upon will be tax-forfeited properties. As with many privately owned properties that are uninhabited and run down, the costs of rehabilitation or demolition of such properties can often be prohibitive.

"We see a lot of blighted properties around the county," agreed Commissioner Gary Peterson. "Not only are they an eyesore, but they affect property values around them."

Christenson pointed out that vacant and run-down structures can also pose significant public health and safety issues, such as rodent infestations, fires and hazards to bystanders, adding they can sometimes even become attractive sites for drug use or other illegal activities.

The new program will provide funding to demolish or upgrade the properties for private or economic development purposes. An eight-point application process has been developed for interested parties, outlining such things the project description, location, statement of need, planning process, budget and anticipated time frame.

The projects will then be reviewed by the Carlton County Economic Development Authority (EDA) and prioritized according to available funding and readiness for implementation.

A local match will be required of the applicants, and the Revitalization Program will not invest more than 50 percent of the total expenses of any one project.

In the case of tax-forfeited properties, the plan is to work with communities to sell those properties directly to the EDA for rehabilitation.

"With the EDA involved as owner, they can focus on those properties as economic development initiatives," explained Christenson. "We will have the ability to work with the community to prioritize projects that meet their comprehensive and redevelopment plans."

Upon completion of a project and the subsequent sale of the property, the plan is for the program to then be reimbursed for the funds it put into the project (without interest) to go back into the loan program fund.

Christenson said she has already discussed the program with several communities around the county, as has Land Commissioner Greg Bernu, who deals with the county's tax-forfeited properties.

"We've already had a lot of interest," reported Christenson, "and I'm wondering if we have allocated enough money for it!"

Commissioner Dick Brenner concurred.

"I think we're going to be inundated with requests," he ventured.

In other business conducted at Tuesday's board meeting, a public hearing was set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, at the Carlton County Transportation Building to address additional road projects to be included on the list of those to be funded through the county's local option sales tax. Transportation Director Mike Tardy explained the hearing will provide an open house forum to gather information on proposed projects.

When the half-percent sales tax first took effect two years ago, 13 local roadways were designated for upgrades under the funding mechanism. Tardy said 11 of those projects should be complete by the end of this year, with two other major projects (Lund and Jay Cooke roads) yet to be addressed.

Commissioner Marv Bodie questioned the advisability of putting other, newer road projects ahead of those two projects.

"If that is indeed the case," Bodie said, "I am not OK with that."

Tardy explained the projects to be funded under the original list were prioritized according to not only need but ease of completion. He said the Lund and Jay Cooke road projects are more complicated and will require considerable design work that may be more than present staffing can manage in a timely fashion. He acknowledged those two projects could indeed be addressed in the order in which they were originally placed, but said that would likely back up other projects for a period of years.

Tardy said he hopes that through the upcoming public hearing, the county will get a clearer picture of where things stand and will be able to prioritize projects accordingly.

According to Paul Gassert, Carlton County auditor/treasurer, the local option sales tax has generated some $1.5 million a year thus far. He pointed out the county has the ability to borrow against the continual flow of funds from the tax at a low interest rate if that is deemed necessary further down the line.

Also Tuesday, the Carlton County Emergency Medical Services (CCEMS) organization honored retired Esko Fire Chief Jeff Juntunen with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Representative Royce Lattu praised Juntunen for his 38 years of service with the department, 20 of which were spent as chief. In his nomination of Juntunen, Tony Compo stated that Juntunen provided "unending dedication to Thompson Township," saying the department was always well-staffed and responsive to the needs of the area. He further applauded Juntunen for helping make ends meet for the department by providing support to other states in battling wildland fires and flood support.

Carlton County Judge Leslie Beiers thanked the board for its role in helping to initiate the drug court program, which provides a rehabilitative alternative to certain drug offenders in lieu of sending them through traditional channels of the criminal justice system. The program has been operating in the county since October 2014.

"I can't tell you how much we value your support," said Beiers, adding the Northland Foundation has also supplied programming dollars and a $1 million grant was recently secured from the state to provide additional mental health services.

Carlton County's drug court program has served 40 people to date.

"It's really humbling to hear these people talk about their newly found sobriety," said Beiers. "So many of them are making significant gains. One man told me this is the first time he's experienced sobriety since he was 13."

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