The following article by Tom Meersman was published in the April 26, 2011 issue of the Star Tribune:


A plan to create green, reliable and affordable energy at an underground hydroelectric plant at St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis is back.

The Crown Hydro project, which has ebbed and flowed for the past dozen years, generated a three-hour discussion at last week’s meeting of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

It’s set for more on Tuesday at the Capitol, where a panel of legislators is expected to discuss a bill that would override the Park Board’s authority over the project and would essentially require its approval by the end of May.

Those with objections and concerns are back, too: neighborhood residents, environmentalists, the Minneapolis City Council, the National Park Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Historical Society, the state archaeologist, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Park Board, which owns the land and has rejected the idea repeatedly.

That has not dissuaded Crown Hydro’s owner, Bill Hawks, who is now on his second try at the Legislature to force the Minneapolis Park Board to approve the project. The company received a federal license to build the plant in 1999, and signed an agreement to sell its electricity to Xcel Energy, said project attorney Tim Keane.

“The Park Board has always been the hangup,” Keane said.

But Park Board President John Erwin said the project could jeopardize the central riverfront area, which has attracted investments, 7,000 new residents, additional taxbase and more than a million annual visitors.

He told legislators recently that taking more water from the river could dry up the falls during hot summers. “Not many folks would be interested in seeing a wet concrete spillway,” Erwin said.

The project would be located on the downtown side of the river, just upstream of the Stone Arch Bridge and the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam. Two turbines would be installed 40 feet underground, and channel the discharged water through flour mill tunnels used a century ago — which also are owned by the park system. It would produce enough electricity to power about 2,200 homes.

The underground project would be nearly invisible to neighbors and tourists, with no vibration or noise, Keane said. It would operate about 60 percent of the year, he said, and sensors would automatically stop the turbines if river levels became low.

Residents aren’t convinced that the company will keep those promises or has the money. It received $1.5 million of a $5.1 million renewable energy grant in 2003, but cannot receive more money until it signs a lease with the park board.

According to public records, Hawks’ home and other property on Lake Minnetonka are in foreclosure. The mansion came to public attention in 2006 when Hawks and his wife, Karen, hosted a fundraiser featuring then-Vice President Dick Cheney to benefit Michele Bachmann, then a state senator making her first bid for Congress.

“The financial wherewithal of the proposer is a huge concern,” said Minneapolis park commissioner Anita Tabb, who represents the falls area.

Keane said money will not be a problem. “Regional and national financiers are highly interested in financing the final construction and development of the project, once site control is obtained,” he said.

Neighbors say the project will provide minimal electricity at too great a price, considering the site’s historical importance. “It’s like they’re stealing the falls, and they’re trying to get it for free, and it doesn’t have to be done,” said Edna Brazaitis, who lives near the river.

Lisa Hondros, another concerned citizen, said, “It’s not just about the view of the falls. There’s environmental concerns, financial concerns, engineering concerns and historic concerns, and public officials at all levels of government have spent a lot of time on this.”
The nine-member Park Board discussed the project last week for more than three hours, and is slated to put it to another vote in May.

Previous boards have rejected the proposal on divided votes, but three new members were elected in 2009.

The measure at the Legislature would override the Park Board’s authority for the project, and require it to provide “not later than May 31, 2011, all permits, entitlements, authorizations or consents of any kind necessary” for the project to proceed.

House author Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, said that Crown Hydro is a “no-brainer, common-sense deal that should have been done a long time ago.”

The Park Board has been acting like a “schoolyard bully,” he said, and needs “to get off their collective duff” and work out a deal.

That approach has rankled Park Board and city officials. City Council member Lisa Goodman recently called the bill an “outrageous concept” that usurps local authority and control.

Rick Solum, an attorney and retired judge who also lives along the river, said the proposed bill is not good public policy. “This is all about taking care of Hawks with regard to this investment that he’s kind of upside down on,” he said.

Beard said if that’s true, it may also be true that “the whole reason the wheels fell off this thing and it got stuck in the mud in the first place” was because of Democratic unhappiness with Hawks’ Republican fundraisers.