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KNIFE RIVER, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is exploring a sale of the Knife River Marina, a 100-slip basin that has for decades anchored the tiny North Shore village popular for its smoked fish and Norwegian heritage.

The state agency has managed the Lake Superior marina for more than 20 years, and extensive deferred maintenance projects and repairs are expected to cost more than $19 million. As the DNR weighs those future costs, officials say they are also considering whether that money could benefit more users elsewhere.

But residents say the marina is a defining characteristic of the tight-knit community, and they worry a sale could result in costlier services for commercial fishing and other boating, or worse, housing developments along the shore.

Fishing has historically sustained the lives of many residents, Pat Meyer, president of the Knife River Recreation Council, told DNR officials at a town meeting in September.

"This was a working village, a fishing village," she said. "And we don't want to lose it."

The DNR has issued a series of short-term contracts to Sailboats, Inc. to operate the marina, and a long-term lease to that company or another provider could be an alternative to a sale, said Phil Leversedge of the DNR parks and trails division.

The Knife River Marina is the only commercial marina the DNR fully owns and maintains in the state. The Silver Bay marina is owned by the DNR, but is run and maintained by the city of Silver Bay.

Since assuming ownership of Knife River Marina, which is on Office of School Trust lands, the DNR hasn't been able to invest enough money to meet the marina's needs, Leversedge said. The marina serves a relatively small group of boaters, he said, and the agency needs to weigh "where we can get the biggest bang for our buck."

"Is it public water access that would serve literally thousands of boaters? Or is it a marina with individual docks that serve a smaller clientele? That's all part of the discussion," he said.

About half of marina users live in the region, and the other half come from the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

Whatever it decides, the state agency intends to keep public access to the lake and a stretch of beach that runs in front of the marina. The DNR's intent is for the marina to continue operations, but under a different model, Leversedge said. The channel maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would remain in its hands.

'A jewel of the North Shore'

The land where the marina now sits has "always been a long-fought-for property," resident and marina tenant Randy Ellestad said, as early villagers sought a harbor that could withstand northeastern wind and waves.

Residents in the 1940s banded together as a cooperative to buy land and pay for construction of a channel, and eventually formed a nonprofit to secure federal money. Later, the U.S. Army Corps built a break wall, and in the early 1970s, the residents gave up their rights to the property, handing it over to Lake County for further development.

The North Shore's Knife River Marina in 1975.
The North Shore's Knife River Marina in 1975.

Randy Ellestad

"It became a jewel of the North Shore," Ellestad said. "There aren't many harbors like that on the Great Lakes."

In that exchange with the county, commercial mariners were promised free use of the marina because of their early investments, but that didn't come to pass. Going forward, they'd like that promise honored, Ellestad said.

Steve Dahl is one of two remaining commercial fishermen who uses the marina, spending most days out on the lake before sunrise, catching cisco, also known as lake herring, and lake trout.

He's fished Lake Superior for more than three decades in his 18-foot skiff, and he pays about $700 per season to use his slip from April to December.

If a developer bought the marina, "I'd be done," Dahl said. "There's enough pressure [to survive as a small commercial fishing business.] Let alone have a developer come in and get rid of us."

Land adjacent to the marina is zoned for residential use, and only a small parcel can be developed, a representative from the Lake County zoning department said at the meeting last week.

But several other nearby acres of land are owned by the county, and Knife River resident Lee Bujold said the marketing of a 100-slip deep water boat basin will attract developers. Privatization of the marina could also result in housing built to subsidize millions in marina rehabilitation.

"It seems to me this isn't just about this boat basin," she said. "It may be great for Knife River and it may have the opportunity to change us irrevocably."

Leversedge said the next step for DNR would be an appraisal of the marina before any decision on a sale in 2024.