Competition stiff for pot of bonding money

More Minnesota communities will be disappointed than happy as state officials look to divide $47.5 million for public works projects.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development received 90 requests worth $288.4 million — more than six times the amount of money legislators gave for projects.

The next job for the state is to make sure projects qualify for the money. Many of the projects, such as those to improve sewer systems, probably would not produce the economic development the program requires, DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips said.

Legislators gave Phillips nearly a dozen criteria to consider.

“There are going to be a lot of winners and losers,” Phillips said.

Phillips added that he hopes he and Gov. Mark Dayton can decide how to spend the money by the end of August.

The three biggest project requests are in St. Paul ($27 million for a minor league baseball park), Rochester ($25 million for a civic center addition) and Minneapolis ($25 million for redesigning its downtown mall). Any two of them would exceed the money available.

Other projects range from funding a new fire station to fixing water systems.

Legislators in May approved a public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds, of almost $500 million.

Included in the measure was the $47.5 million in unallocated funds. It is the first time lawmakers told the administration to decide how to spend general bonding money.

Phillips said his staff will score each project, based on criteria lawmakers approved. If some projects are close in scores, he added, he will look at other criteria.

“We would like to have a little bit of geographic balance about this around the state,” he said.

That is something Wayne Wolden hopes happens.

The Wadena mayor said his city would be in a good place. Few other project requests are in his area.

Wadena received money two years ago to design a wellness center to replace a swimming pool, community center and other facilities a 2010 tornado destroyed, but lawmakers rejected funding construction in the last two legislative sessions.

Officials spent a lot of time preparing applications for the money. For instance, Wadena’s application was 106 pages, with more than 40 letters of support.

“There was a lot of thought that went into it,” Wolden said.

The Wadena application seeks $4.6 million in state money for a $10 million project. Projects must have local funding, not rely only on the state.

While legislators gave Phillips a list of requirements that projects must meet to get the money, the commissioner said that economic development is his top priority.

He also said projects ready for construction should get preference. Wolden used that as a pitch, saying all local money is ready and construction could begin days or weeks after state money is approved.

“We want this money to go to work as quickly as possible,” Phillips said.

Once Phillips’ staff ranks the projects and he goes over them, Dayton will provide as much input “as he wants,” the commissioner added.

A Dayton spokeswoman said his office has been contacted by many of the project applicants, but the governor and Phillips have yet to discuss how they will make the final decision.

While some of the projects were ones passed over by legislators’ when they approved nearly $500 million in construction, many are new that the state has not vetted, Phillips said.

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