MOUNTAIN IRON — Mountain Iron Mayor Gary Skalko is proud of how far the city has come during his 17 years as mayor, and he’s looking forward to how much it will continue to grow during this new year and beyond.
Skalko spent some time on a recent morning, reflecting on the “state of the city,” which he also addressed earlier in the week at the Mountain Iron City Council meeting.
While there have been a couple “disappointments” for the city, Mountain Iron has overwhelmingly experienced positive growth and wellness, he said.
“First and foremost, the city is in good shape financially,” he said. “The city’s finances remain strong and the reserves are solid.”
This past December, the council unanimously voted on a 0% tax levy increase for 2020 — continuing a tradition for the city. It was the ninth time in 11 years that the council passed a 0% levy.
“What I’m most proud of during my past 17 years (as mayor), starting on 18, is the growth of the city through economic development,” Skalko said.
The “best illustration” of that is looking back at 2007, when about 70% of property taxes were paid by individual property owners, and 30% were paid by businesses, he said. In recent years, it’s been “just the opposite” — with 70% paid by businesses and 30% by property owners.
While the turnaround has happened during Skalko’s mayorship, he stressed that the city’s viability has come about because of a “team effort,” with help from City Administrator Craig Wainio, the city’s Economic Development Authority, Planning & Zoning Commission, “and, of course, the city council.”
The mayor said the city is also expanding via its housing developments. Two more houses were build in the Unity II addition last year, bringing the total number of homes built to 23.
“This addition not only brings in new people to our community, but also an annual assessed tax base of nearly $8 million,” Skalko said.
“And there are still quality lots available, not only in Unity II, but in the city’s other developments of South Forest Grove and Woodland Estates.”
Mountain Iron is also proud to be home to the state’s only solar panel factory, the mayor said.
The Heliene solar plant is thriving, he said. The city, through the EDA, worked with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board last year for the purchase of additional high-tech equipment for the factory, Skalko said.
“As a result, they were able to hire 30 more people,” he said, adding that Heliene, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, now has 100 employees working three shifts at the Mountain Iron plant.
The Rock Ridge section of town also continues to be a big contributor to the city’s tax base, Skalko said. Its seven businesses employ more than 250 people and provide an annual tax base of more than $29 million. “That’s tremendous for a little town” of roughly 3,000, he said.
The Holiday Inn Express & Suites, located in Rock Ridge, was sold last year to new owners from the Twin Cities. The developer has renovations planned for the hotel, which “will soon become a Comfort Inn.”
The same developer, Skalko said, purchased 6.5 acres of land north of the current hotel, and has “tentative plans” to build a new Holiday Inn Express there.
Skalko said some of the “major city projects” slated for this year include:
• Renovation of Mountain Iron Drive from the former Country Kitchen to Menards. The roadway will be widened and repaved. The city obtained a $350,000 IRRRB grant to defray the cost.
• Updating of the South Grove Recreation Complex.
• Construction of a “solar farm” in the “desert area” south of old downtown Mountain Iron. The project is a joint effort with the City of Virginia, and it could launch as soon as this summer.
Skalko said the city suffered a few recent “disappointments.”
The proposed 70-unit market rate apartment complex planned for the Rock Ridge area, west of Lake Country Power, scheduled to begin construction this spring, has been put on hold, he said.
Also, the Plaza 53 West mall’s proposed sale, announced last year, has experienced some “snags,” the mayor said. The developers from the Twin Cites have not yet closed on the sale. The proposed renovation project is currently “in limbo,” he said.
Skalko emphasized that “the city council can only do so much. We can work with developers, offering incentives like tax increment financing and tax abatement, but ultimately it is their decision. Ultimately it’s up to the developer to move forward — it’s their money.
The mayor said he is anticipating a good year for the city. “Our goal for 2020 remains to keep Mountain Iron moving forward — to make our community the very best place for all of us to live and work.”