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County wants to bring Bentleyville back home

As speculation continues to mount over the future of the popular Bentleyville tour of lights display in Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park, one Carlton County commissioner has decided to take matters into his own hands.

Spectacular Bentleyville
Fireworks explode over Bentleyville the last night the Bayfront Festival Park attraction was open last year. Steve Kuchera/Forum Communications

As speculation continues to mount over the future of the popular Bentleyville tour of lights display in Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park, one Carlton County commissioner has decided to take matters into his own hands.

Commissioner Tom Proulx asked fellow board members at Tuesday's meeting this week to approve the formation of a committee to pursue the possibility of convincing Bentleyville mastermind Nathan Bentley to relocate the attraction to Carlton County.

"With all of what we have been hearing in the news lately about the dissatisfaction with the current situation," said Proulx, "why shouldn't we see if we can offer something better?"

The Bentleyville display has been plagued with problems in recent months. For the second straight year, a pair of itinerant preachers, who have rallied for the right to expound on their religious beliefs on the grounds of Bentleyville, received the blessing of a judge's ruling last week, stating that because Bentleyville is free and open to the public it retains the rules regarding access to public property and free speech. Bentley responded by saying he fears the tour of lights will become a crass event with people espousing all kinds of views while people simply try to enjoy the light show, adding that he has taken special care to keep the tour free of commercialization.

In addition, authorities responded to reports of a burning wreath inside the attraction last Saturday, and someone reportedly stole 15 100-foot extension cords last Thursday. According to Bentley, vandals also recently damaged a snowman and other displays. He called such acts "a constant problem."

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In response to these issues and more, Bentley delivered a word of warning the day following the most recent court decision, saying, "Make sure you get [to Bentleyville] this year," hinting that the current incarnation of the tour of lights at Bayfront Festival Park might not exist next year.

Proulx pointed out that the Bentleyville phenomenon first got its start in Carlton County in 2001. At that time, Bentley first started decorating his family home along a frontage road in Esko to traffic-stopping results. The display got bigger and better with each passing year, and when the Bentley family moved to a larger home on Crosby Road north of Cloquet, he reopened the light display with greater and grander dimensions.

Traffic problems and limited parking eventually created concerns in Bentley's small rural neighborhood, and in 2008 Bentley took a year off from hosting the display to deliberate on its future. It was then that he received an appeal from the city of Duluth, asking he consider moving Bentleyville to Duluth in 2009, where it has remained and expanded ever since.

With the attraction's recent challenges, however, and Bentley's three-year contract with the city of Duluth about to expire, Proulx said he thinks the time is right to propose a new option to Bentley.

"The county was generous in its support of Bentleyville in the past," said Proulx, "and we can do it again."

Proulx stressed said that the vision, at this point, is still very preliminary, since he hasn't been in contact with Bentley nor has the committee yet been formed. He said the options for bringing Bentleyville to Carlton County are exciting, however.

"Can you imagine Bentleyville on Dunlap Island, with displays on both sides of the highway and maybe at Veterans Park as well?" envisioned Proulx. "All of the people driving along Highway 33 would be able to see it from their cars!"

He suggested that likely partners on a committee to come up with suggestions to pitch to Bentley would be the city of Cloquet, the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce and the county itself.

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The board unanimously approved Proulx's request to form such a committee.

In other business to come before the board, commissioners supported a request from Jim Nynas of the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) for $5,000 to cover architect's fees to pursue Phase 2 of a four-part application to receive loan funding from the United States Department of Agriculture for a building to house the SWCD. Nynas also requested the county provide a letter of intent to provide property adjacent to the County Transportation Building as a building site for the proposed building. Nynas explained if the USDA loan is secured, the intent is to pay back the cost of the approximately $1.2 million structure through rent money gleaned from housing the Carlton County Extension Service and possibly Twin Lakes Township. Commissioners made it clear that although they would support the current expense incurred by the loan application process, they are not committing to the construction of the building at this point in time.

The board voted to adjust the salary of Information Technology Director Pete Gould, who was hired on an interim basis last February. County Coordinator Dennis Genereau explained that at that time Gould's salary was set at a level below that of similar positions in other counties and private entities. He recommended that since Gould's six-month probationary period is over and his first year of employment is almost up, the board consider increasing his salary to one that is more commensurate with the duties he is performing. He suggested Gould be moved from Grade 14 to Grade 15B, at an hourly salary of approximately $34.77 an hour, a raise of about $3.29.

Carlton County Economic Development Director Pat Oman informed commissioners that thus far 25 applications totaling some $2 million have been submitted for assistance from the Minnesota Investment Fund for commercial rehabilitation of flood-damaged properties in Carlton County.

The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTY
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