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DNR commissioner highlights Itasca needs in capital bonding request

ITASCA, Minn. - Overdue sewer work to the historic Douglas Lodge, restoring a dormitory-style lodging facility and cleaning up erosion issues at the Mississippi Headwaters are some of the improvements needed at Itasca State Park.

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Itasca State Park Manager Bob Chance explains erosion issues at the Mississippi Headwaters along with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, left, and Chris Weir-Koetter, assistant regional manager parks and trails on Wednesday. Landwehr discussed the DNR’s request for $33 million from the state legislature for building and infrastructure upgrades and restoration projects in state parks. (Kevin Cederstrom | Park Rapids Enterprise)

ITASCA, Minn. - Overdue sewer work to the historic Douglas Lodge, restoring a dormitory-style lodging facility and cleaning up erosion issues at the Mississippi Headwaters are some of the improvements needed at Itasca State Park.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner says his agency would need $132 million annually for the next 10 years to catch up with what he calls "asset preservation" statewide.

That’s long-term. The short-term is Tom Landwehr and the DNR are requesting $33 million this year from the state legislature to fund what he calls crucial building and infrastructure upgrades and restoration projects that "require immediate attention."

Included in the bonding proposal is $3 million for Itasca State Park. Landwehr and other DNR officials toured the park last week to highlight some of those needs.

"This is Minnesota’s oldest and arguably most iconic state park," Landwehr said. "It’s also a great place to demonstrate the challenges we have of retaining some of those assets, and how we need to continue to invest in these icons so we can enjoy them in the future as well."

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The DNR owns and maintains 2,700 buildings at over 200 locations statewide. In 2014, the DNR completed a facility condition assessment and found that 204 of the buildings are in "crisis" unacceptable condition, with 533 buildings in poor condition.

The agency conducted an assessment of its capital needs for the next 10 years.  Landwehr said they found $342 million of deferred maintenance, work that has not been done historically to keep the buildings in shape, in addition to what he says the $98 million annually for year to year maintenance.

"We have this huge backlog of needs," Landwehr said.

Included in the list of needs is a new sewer system at the historic Douglas Lodge in Itasca State Park.

Bob Chance, park manager, said work needs to be done now.

"Our standard operating procedure in parks for far too long has been to defer our long-term maintenance and put a short-term fix on many of the problems that occur with our infrastructure," Chance said during Wednesday’s tour.

An engineering firm looked at the sewer and water lines at Douglas Lodge and found some that date back 80 years, as well as lines with no history and likely date back even further, according to Chance. Each year, his maintenance crew finds a way to make things work.

Toilets back up and workers have to go in and open sewer lines several times a summer.

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"It’s gotten to the point now where we’re going to start cutting public service for our visitors here at the park," Chance said. "We can’t do a fix anymore. We need to do something permanent."

The bonding request is recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton and, according to the DNR, part of the administration’s commitment to fixing the state’s aging infrastructure and creating jobs.

The $33 million request is a leap from past requests and part of the DNR’s overall $72.5 million capital bonding request.

"The DNR has never received more than $17 million in any one bonding proposal," Landwehr said. "We have been seriously underfunding these assets for a long, long time."

About 500 projects across the state would be funded by the 2016 capital budget request.

If the bonding proposal is passed, the DNR would make the most critical upgrades and repairs at Itasca including the aging sewer system at Douglas Lodge, beginning rehabilitation of Nicollet Court, improving park safety and upgrades to public water accesses. 

Repairing what the DNR calls a serious erosion issue at the Mississippi Headwaters in the park was also discussed on Wednesday’s tour.

The iconic Headwaters marker at the site is leaning due to erosion, Chance said. Any changes at the Headwaters would be what Chance calls resource management.

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"We want to try to prevent more erosion from happening." Chance said they bring in sand and gravel each year to temporarily fix the erosion issue at the popular tourist destination where people can walk across the Mississippi, but every year more is washed away down the river.

Much of the erosion is due to the heavy foot traffic dragging sand into the water.

"This is where people come to step in the Mississippi River and it’s a very important part of Itasca," he said. "Every year we build up to the rocks and every year it disappears."

Nicollet Court was built in the 1920s as a dormitory for workers. It sits behind Douglas Lodge and has been closed about 20 years. Chance said he would like to see that facility renovated for visitor lodging.

He said the main issues to address in order to restore Nicollet Court are mold, water damage, stains in the rooms and overall deterioration after having set unused for so many years.

"The structure itself is fine," he said. "It would take significant cost to renovate but not nearly the cost of building new. We want to bring this back."

Chance wants to renovate the building back to its original as much as they can and use as visitor lodging once again.

Another area of concern at the park is the public boat access where there is a bicycle rental shop, concessions, canoe rental and other facilities.

Chance said congestion in this area is a safety concern and they are considering better utilizing the space, possibly even moving the boat ramp. Also, citing Aquatic Invasive Species concern, he would like to have a pull off lane and signs for AIS inspections.

Itasca State Park attracts more than 500,000 visitors each year with thousands visiting the Headwaters daily during peak visiting season.

"Minnesota’s oldest state park and one of its busiest celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, and it is showing its age," said Erika Rivers, director of the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division. "We need to preserve and maintain this park and ensure a sustainable future of the parks and trails system as a whole."

The $33 million "asset preservation" proposal in front of the legislature would pay for upgrades at parks, trails, water access sites, roads and bridges across the state.

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