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Lots of ideas, few solutions for Mille Lacs area businesses affected by ban

Ideas were plentiful but decisions nonexistent at the second meeting of the Legislative Working Group on Mille Lacs Lake.

Wednesday’s discussion centered on ways to potentially help area business owners expected to be economically disadvantaged now that walleye fishing on the state’s second largest lake has been banned until at least Dec. 1.

“Minnesota has a long tradition of helping ma and pa resorts, and we need to be sensitive to their needs,” said Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook).

Gov. Mark Dayton wants to call legislators back to St. Paul later this month to approve immediate, short-term assistance for the area and then look for long-term solutions to the lake’s declining population of the state’s official fish.

READ MORE: No early answers on Mille Lacs walleye woes

This is not a crisis; it’s an unfortunate situation, said Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings). He urged the working group to take its time to do things in the right way. 

Among the ideas discussed at the meeting were:

  • more tourism promotion for the area;
  • interest-free loans of up to $100,000; and
  • property tax abatements for business owners affected by the walleye-fishing ban.

“Minnesotans expect government to step up when normal tools don’t work,” said Myron Frans, Minnesota Management & Budget commissioner.

However, he said providing immediate help is likely going to require a special session.

Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the 0 percent loans are the best solution, in part, because that is capital that can be used right away. She suggested a maximum loan of up to $100,000 with up to 10 years to repay.

Explore Minnesota Tourism Director John Edman said his agency needs to reach out and further market the Mille Lacs Lake area beyond walleye fishing. He proposes an extra $400,000 be appropriated over the next two years for that purpose.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar), who co-chairs the group with Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), wants more specifics in writing to each proposal. “Who is eligible? How far out do we go?”

He hopes those answers will be available when the group next meets at 10 a.m. Aug. 13.

Tomassoni reiterated his belief that a “very good short-term solution” is to reopen the lake to walleye fishing at least through Labor Day. “I believe people will come back if we announce the season is being reopened.”

That would also work for McNamara, who added that he would be open to making it catch-and-release of walleye for the next month.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the idea would be looked at, but he doesn’t want to give any “false hope.” He also said a short-term fix does not equate to long-term gain.

Either way would help resort owners capture some last-minute bookings. Karen McQuoid, a member of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council, said numerous cancellations have occurred since the walleye fishing ban was announced Sunday.

The lake’s walleye population is the lowest measured in at least 30 years, and this year’s walleye harvest on the lake is approaching 31,000 pounds, exceeding the state’s allotment by more than 2,000 pounds. The lake is still open to pursue other fish, including muskies, bass and northern pike.

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