See more of the story

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board voted recently to spend nearly $5 million to kick-start development of 92 miles of mountain bike trails across three mining communities in northern Minnesota.

Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the minority leader of the Minnesota Senate, was the lone dissenter on the IRRRB’s board when it approved the expenditure last month.

“I’m not against it,” Bakk said before casting his “no” vote. He explained that he was against using IRRRB money for projects that haven’t tapped other funding sources first.

“And I’m all for the quality-of-life thing,” he added. But he said the board’s money — which is derived from taconite mining taxes — is supposed to be used to create jobs.

“Please leverage some money from somewhere else before you come running here for every dime of taconite money we’re trying to use for job creation,” Bakk said.

In an interview Friday, Bakk said he supports trail development but that it gets done all around Minnesota with state support.

“Nobody builds these with their own property tax dollars,” Bakk said. He noted that the city of Hermantown just got $820,000 in Legacy Fund monies to build a trail. “That’s what should have been done” with the three mountain bike trails — then, the IRRRB would be a natural partner, he said.

Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, touted mountain bike trails as a proven way to stimulate economic development.

“This has become a very popular tourism activity, and we’ve seen the economic impacts demonstrated in Duluth and down on the Cuyuna Range and elsewhere in the country, particularly in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona,” Phillips said, noting that a recent study found that the 25-mile Cuyuna Trail resulted in 15 new businesses and $2 million in additional annual revenue for the communities of Crosby, Ironton and Riverton.

Phillips said he’s all about leveraging revenue, but it’s time to actually do something.

“We contemplate for so long, sometimes we miss the opportunity,” Phillips said. He cited the development of the Quarry golf course in Biwabik as a case in point. By the time the board gave it the go-ahead, “golfing was kind of on the downturn,” Phillips said.

Peter Kero, an employee of Barr Engineering, told the board that the International Mountain Bicycling Association, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo., estimates that one in five Americans owns a mountain bike. They tend to be younger and earn higher incomes than the population as a whole, Kero said.

“So instead of thinking ‘adrenaline junkies,’ think of ‘young professionals,’ ” he said.

Mining rock makes an excellent substrate material for trails, Kero said. When it rains, trails built from clay or organic soils must be closed. But Iron Range trails could remain open, he said. “So that might be our niche,” he said. “We think mountain biking is particularly well-suited to the Iron Range.”

dan.browning@startibune.com • 612-673-4493