INTERNATIONAL FALLS – As home and business owners in pickup trucks lined up to receive pallets of sandbags, high school students joined the National Guard and Red Cross volunteers last week to deal with the worst flooding in Rainy River watershed in 72 years.
The students, working in school clothes, took part regularly in the three-week emergency effort in Kerry Park.
“They worked really hard,” said Sarah Peterson, a teacher at Falls High School. “They carried the load. When they show up, these pallets are turned over pretty quickly. »
The city they call “the nation’s icehouse” and “the end of the line” is undergoing the latest in a series of recent challenges. For much of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada closed its border with the United States, shutting down the town of neighboring Fort Frances across the border, causing untold social and economic upheaval.
Earlier this year, the city’s Chamber of Commerce voted to disband, only to relaunch with another vote weeks later. The town’s mayor died while in office in 2019. A previous episode of flooding in 2014 was preceded by more than 250 layoffs at the local paper mill when ownership changed hands in 2013. Not to mention the loss of more than 600 residents between the 2010 and the 2020 U.S. Census, leaving the city with 5,802 residents – its lowest population since 1980.
“We can’t understand this – where did all the people go?” said Stephanie Heinle, 53, and owner of the downtown Coffee Landing Cafe. “Because the mill is still running, we still have all the banks, and there’s no house to be had here. It’s weird, random.
Heinle describes his café as a “big city espresso shop with a small town café feel”, and inside is another great example of the remote, northernmost city fighting for itself. . Heinle keeps the music “on the verge of being too loud,” she said, and the place vibrates with chatter across the tables and greetings from neighbors. It’s almost always so busy and vibrant, Heinle said, before discussing the sense of hope inherent in his establishment.
“We’re kind of caught up in our own little world here, pumping out good food for good people every day at 6 a.m.,” she said. “We’re not worried about any of these dramas outside of downtown.”
The drama that seems to come in waves hit hard in March, when the city’s Chamber of Commerce threw in the towel.
“A lot of it was related to the apathy that developed within the community,” said Leif Larsen, chamber president and owner of a local morgue.
House engagement plummeted during the pandemic, and it wasn’t until the dissolution vote that the business community realized what it was losing. Larsen began receiving phone calls from concerned business owners, residents, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and a series of inquiries from former chamber presidents who thought the organization could surely be saved.
“They felt the same way I did,” said Larsen, who described recent efforts to recruit new companies and board members to revitalize the group since a subsequent vote in April called for rebuilding. from the room.
“It was kind of a wake-up call,” Larsen said. “We try to emphasize to members, ‘We get it. You didn’t think the bedroom was relevant to your business. “”
Now the conversations are about the imperative for businesses to be networked, and the chamber is asking members what it can do to make doing business easier.
“We’re in a neat place right now,” Mayor Harley Droba said, speaking near Kerry Park, site of the sandbagging effort and a potential $15 million bail demand. dollars that would reinvent the park.
Droba was an at-large councilor when he replaced Bob Anderson after his sudden death in 2019. Droba has since won re-election.
“We’re on the verge of legitimate growth for the first time in nearly 40 years,” he said. “We don’t have population growth, but we do get growth from outside investors who believe in our community right now.”
Miner’s Inc. consolidates its two stores into a new Super One that moves into a former Kmart building. Two new hotels in town should open before the summer. Holiday Stationstores is building the city’s first new gas station in 40 years.
Yet population loss has hurt the tax base at a time when neglected urban infrastructure emphasizes public works with regular water main breaks. Droba said the situation forced the city to raise its property tax by 13.9% for 2022.
Others wonder if elected officials could do better.
“With an additional 5% from the county, my taxes are up 19.5% from last year,” said Ed Bates, 41, a local auto body shop manager who started attending council meetings. council in September because of the dramatic increase in taxes.
Though he’s wary of becoming a thorn in the city’s side, Bates can’t reconcile major tax increases at a time when real estate valuations are also skyrocketing – including a 28% increase on his modest house within the city limits.
“We are a big community; we come together to help each other as a cohesive unit,” Bates said. “But when it comes to being united to go to city council to say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong’, it’s not there.”
Bates noted that the city already has a 1% sales and use tax dedicated to its roads and infrastructure. This was approved by the state legislature to begin in 2019 and run for 30 years or $30 million, whichever comes first. But Droba argued the city needed to go deeper into its problems, anticipating public services and replacing roads on city streets.
“The biggest problem for us is that we can’t just fix these roads, it’s what’s underneath,” he said.
Droba, owner of a restaurant, The Library, said he had to call the city last week to say the water at the establishment was yellow.
“It costs us more money to fix water main breaks than to replace them,” he said. “We had to make the difficult decision to have a 14% tax, so that we could invest money in long-term infrastructure.”
As Droba spoke, the caravan of vehicles in line for the sandbags stretched for blocks, almost to Interstate 53, which doubles as Third Street in the city. The emergency system is clunky, with vehicles having to turn around in a Kerry Park car park to leave the same way they entered.
When Governor Tim Walz visited International Falls to discuss the border closure last year, he urged Droba to make the revitalization of Kerry Park a priority for the legislative liaison process.
Droba took it to heart, and the city pushed for its inclusion in potential bail legislation despite missing the deadline and last summer’s bonding tour.
“He said it was a big project for northern Minnesota,” Droba said, recalling his conversation with the governor.
“It’s just the governor trying to get re-elected,” Bates replied.
Either way, the fate of the bill figures to come in a special legislative session. It would reimagine a park that has remained relatively untouched for decades and show it off.
“All of this is playground equipment that I played on as a kid,” Droba said, before explaining the motivation for revitalizing the park in the center of town.
“The (residents’) argument is to bring in new people,” he said. “But my answer to that is that we don’t provide them with anything new.”
The plan is to raze the deteriorating hockey arena, leaving the city with an indoor track at Bronco Arena, and build a community and senior center that would also include a gymnasium and walking track.
A toboggan hill would be built on site using spoil from the earthworks, and a single baseball diamond and outdoor skating rink would be reconstructed and featured in the park, along with a dog park. In the summer, portable skatepark equipment filled the rink.
And with better used outdoor tennis and basketball courts in other parks within the city limits, those in Kerry Park would be replaced by a water park to attract young families to build with the money. collected by the local Rotary Club.
The city offered $1.1 million of its sales and use tax to take advantage of the $15 million bond proposal.
City money would go towards improving public services and infrastructure, including rebuilding roads around the park for better access and traffic flow when Kerry Park is used as an emergency location as it is currently.
“We’re literally talking about this whole footprint and space,” Droba said. “Redo it and make it more conducive to emergencies.
Because Kerry Park’s plans continue to morph and have gone through various iterations, the false narrative that the city just wants to build another hockey arena was born.
“I get beaten up all the time because I want an arena,” Droba said. “I don’t want an arena. What I want is an area of our community that makes sense for everyone to use.
Back at the Coffee Landing Cafe, Heinle was asked about the mood in town. He was the one who seemed to be characterized by resilience at the end of the line.
“It’s also the start of the line,” Heinle said of his city. “We’re ‘Minnesota nice’ at its best — the whole city. Once you enter the cafe you are no stranger to me. I will watch you.