Otter Tail County hearing pushback on governor's fishing opener

Annual Minnesota event is economic, not political, deputy administrator says

Gov. Tim Walz didn't catch a walleye during the 2019 fishing opener, but he did manage to get on the board with a small perch. Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

Deputy Otter Tail County Administrator Nick Leonard told Otter Tail County commissioners on Tuesday, April 27, that he's fielded several phone calls asking why Otter Tail County is hosting the Governor's Fishing Opener.

In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Otter Tail County went solidly for the Republican candidate, and Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat. Walz has taken heat in parts of the county for his pandemic-related mandates.

Leonard said the fishing opener, scheduled for May 13-15, has been taking place since the 1960s and that it's an economic event, not a political one. The Otter Tail Lakes Country Association, which represents more than 200 local businesses, applied to have the event here and will provide great exposure for the county, he said. It was supposed to take place in Otter Tail County in 2020 but was canceled because of the pandemic.

"It's not about the governor," Leonard said. "It's not a free vacation for the governor. It is a tourism and promotion event. It is a way to utilize the media. Whether you like him or her or not, the media follows the governor, so this is a way to shine a light on Otter Tail County."

The association board discussed the event, he said, and decided that turning it down would be inappropriate given the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would provide to hard-hit hotels and restaurants, as well as more than $1 million in media exposure.


He said the locals have encouraged the governor's office to keep things as traditionally done, with invitations extended to House and Senate leadership.

"It's a good opportunity to get folks into a boat to talk about catching walleye instead of what's happening in St. Paul," he said.

Phelps Mill to get more trails, paddling

Phelps Mill will expand year-round trails and add boardwalks, canoe and kayak launches and a new nature play area, among other amenities, according to a master plan adopted by the Otter Tail County Commission at its April 27 meeting.

“I would argue you’d be hard-pressed to find a similar type of experience in the state. It is a remarkable and unique place,” said Nick Leonard, deputy county administrator.

Phelps Mill began as a 55-acre park in 1965 and includes Phelps Mill Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2019, the county more than doubled the park's size when it bought 72 acres on the park’s northern boundary as well as the General Store. The Otter Tail River runs along its western edge.

The master plan was put together with public input. The public expressed desire for more camping spots, better parking and and amphitheater style seating and a stage. The plan also calls for certain parcels to prairie. ,installing native vegetation and removing invasive species.

Adopting a master plan will make the park eligible for grants. The changes will be made over four phases, Leonard said.

Spitzer Lake on its own

Spitzer Lake, where high levels are threatening homes and properties, needs a $38,000 feasibility study in order to qualify for state aid, but the question is where to pay for that study, Leonard told commissioners.


Commissioner Wayne Johnson of Pelican Rapids balked at helping the Spitzer Lake Association seek funding.

"I was under the impression that we had left that in the hands of the Spitzer Lake Association and we were not championing that effort," he said. "You know what, Spitzer Lake, you have to step up and help yourself. That's where I thought we left it. While I appreciate we're trying to help, where does that end? I don't think it's our duty to spend our capital with our lobbyist and those kinds of things to find them cash. They need to step up. We don't even know if they're involved."

Chairman Lee Rogness said he felt the lake association didn't fully understand the process of finding state aid and that the county was helping them figure out the process, not find the cash.

In other action:

  • The commission gave the go-ahead to a solid waste long-range plan that looks at reducing landfills, expanding recycling and organics separation, among other goals. It will likely go to a public hearing this summer.
  • Commissioners voted 4-1 to pay an extra $105,000 to Houston Engineering for work on the Perham-to-Pelican Rapids trail. The company had to reconfigure its plans once the power company decided to bury its power lines and the county could move the trail closer to the road.
  • A postcard will soon arrive in 48,000 Otter Tail County mailboxes encouraging residents to get COVID vaccinations. It includes a list of places vaccines are offered. The $17,000 cost of the mailing should be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Patrick Waletzko, county Emergency Management Agency director. In Otter Tail County, 72 people have died of COVID, and 47% of those age 16 and up have at least one does of the vaccine, according to Public Health Director Jody Lien. They want to get 70-90% of the population vaccinated.
  • County unemployment is at 5.2%, less than it was for the same time period two years ago, but labor participation also remains low, with 1,200 open jobs in the county. Some reasons for the shrinking workforce include retirements and the pandemic placing more demands on families to remain at home for schooling or childcare. "The challenge to finding workers is the biggest issue we're hearing," said Community Development Director Amy Baldwin. "That's no surprise."
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