Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is investing $1.5 million to improve broadband within two rural areas of northeastern Minnesota.

The IRRR Board on Tuesday recommended funding broadband projects in Pequaywan Township in the Cloquet Valley area, and in Wuori, Sandy and Pike Townships north of Virginia.

“These are big deals that require significant investment,” Mark Phillips, IRRR commissioner, said prior to the board meeting. “Broadband infrastructure requires a lot of money, but we're trying to leverage our money. We wouldn't put that kind of money in unless we get big investments (from private and public partners).

Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is a state of Minnesota economic development agency headquartered in Eveleth. It serves a 13,000 square-mile area of northeastern Minnesota.   

Improving rural broadband to help drive business growth and increase access for residents is a priority across the state. Large portions of northeastern Minnesota remain unserved or underserved by high-speed broadband.

The $4 million Pequaywan Township project, supported by a $750,000 IRRR grant, will construct fiber to 266 unserved and underserved households. Cooperative Light and Power, which will invest $3.2 million in the project, will construct, operate and provide service.

The $3.1 million Wuori, Sandy and Pike Township project, backed by a $750,000 IRRR grant, will construct fiber to 616 unserved and underserved households. Paul Bunyan Communications, which will invest $1.2 million in the project, will construct, operate and provide service.

The two projects are the latest in a number of high-speed broadband projects the IRRR has in recent supported in its service area in partnership with other funding sources. 

“We're excited about these projects,” said Phillips. “Every time we complete one of these projects, another 500 to 600 people are served. It's significant.”

In other business, Phillips said the agency is moving forward to hire a tribal liaison. Thirty-one applications were received, of which 12 met minimum qualifications, said Phillips. Of the 12, two applicants declined, leaving 10 to be interviewed, Phillips said.    

Two regional trails project grants that would support a total of $1.7 million in trail development were recommended:

• A $500,000 grant to the city of Hoyt Lakes to develop 7.5 miles of all-terrain vehicle trail connecting Biwabik to the off-highway vehicle park in Gilbert.

• A $50,000 grant to the city of Virginia for reconstruction and widening of the Silver Lake multi-modal trail.  

Also recommended are $3.3 million in development and community infrastructure grants that would help fund a total of $26.6 million in projects.

Development and community infrastructure projects are:

• $115,000 grant to the city of Aurora for upgrades to a commercial building that houses three tenants, including the area food shelf.

• $247,918 to the city of Ely for expansion of the Veterans Clinic in Ely.

• $92,233 to Fayal Township for a housing development sanitary sewer line extension.

• $250,000 to the city of Grand Rapids for electrical utility and HVAC upgrades at a Minnesota Diversified Industries expansion.

• $15,500 to the city of Calumet for site work and construction for a new public works facility.

• $250,000 to the city of Chisholm for street and utilities replacement.

• $250,000 to the city of Gilbert for road construction and utility replacement through Main Street.

• $230,000 to the city of Grand Rapids to develop a solar array and solar storage resource to provide power to Grand Rapids Public Utilities customers.

• $400,000 to the city of Mountain Iron for rehabilitating the city's 400,000 gallon water tower, a new water filtering system and drilling of a new well.