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Superior council OKs purchase of county-owned land

The move would put a sewer treatment plant under the city's control.

Government Center in Superior.jpg
Government Center in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
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The Superior City Council approved purchasing land leased from Douglas County for nearly half a century to protect a city asset.

At it's Tuesday, Jan. 18, meeting, the council approved spending up to $140,000, the appraised value, to purchase land in South Superior where the city built a combined sewer treatment plant back in the 1970s.

Two city council races are contested so far; candidates in the council's 9th District have until Friday, Jan. 7 to get on the ballot.

The land will be purchased with the proceeds of a loan through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Officials are planning to pursue a $1.4 million loan to make repairs at the facility. The state loan program offers 30% loan forgiveness, which will reduce the city’s overall costs for the loan by $420,000, officials said.

“We have a large piece of very important infrastructure sitting on county leased property,” said Todd Janigo, public works director. “It would behoove us to have it on our property.”

Councilors Brent Fennessey and Jack Sweeney supported exploring another lease with the county rather than spending the cash outright.

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Janigo said the city is under a time crunch after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources changed its position on ownership of the land and investing in an asset with a lease that expires in four years. He said lease payments wouldn’t be eligible for loan forgiveness.

Douglas County’s elected officials are on hiatus and won’t resume normal business meetings prior to Feb. 22, when the land and development committee, which handles land sales, is scheduled to meet again.

Opened in 1913 as the Theatre Princess, Frankie's Tavern downtown could see new life with the right project.

For the land acquisition to be include in the loan, the land would need to be purchased no later than Feb. 23, according to a memo environmental services director Steve Roberts wrote to the council.

“It’s a city utility function,” said Mayor Jim Paine. “We’re in a better position to control that land.”

The combined sewer treatment plant was built in the late 1970s as one of several measures to get the city out from under a sewer moratorium that restrained economic development in the city.

Roberts said he doesn’t have a precise value of the combined sewer treatment plant, “but it is my opinion that a reasonable estimate would be in the several-million-dollar range.”

“We’ve always worked with the city,” said Supervisor Keith Allen, Douglas County’s chairman of the land and development committee, which has oversight of non-forest-related, county-owned lands.

The committee could entertain a land swap or sale, but he said the county doesn’t typically enter into leases.

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Allen said he wasn’t familiar with the 1976 lease approved more than a decade before he joined the county board.

“The county’s always been a good partner on purchase price,” Paine said. “I think you have to recognize the appraised value is typically the fair purchase price.”

Still, Paine said the city could still end up spending less and encouraged the council to cap spending at $140,000.

“It’s in our best interest to own property where we have substantial utilities," Paine said.

A motion to postpone a decision until a lease option could be explored failed, and the council approved spending up to $140,000 to buy the land.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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