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Pawlenty scoffs at Chatfield project in bonding bill

ST. PAUL — The Senate gave preliminary approval to a $1 billion public works bill on Tuesday, even as the governor threatened to veto it.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty blasted the Democratic-led Legislature, saying the bills are too large and included "misplaced priorities." He zeroed in on Chatfield's Potter Center for the Arts proposal as an example of a project that should not be included.

"If they bring those bills to my desk in the form that they are in, or anything close to the form that they are in, they are going to get vetoed in their entirety," he said during a news conference on Tuesday morning.

Pawlenty criticized Democrats for not including money in the bill to expand a sex-offender treatment program.

"Yet they have money to fund an art or pottery facility in Chatfield," Pawlenty said. "They have money to do civic centers all across the state."


The governor's spokesman, Brian McClung, corrected the governor during a news conference to point out that the center's name is "Potter" and has nothing to do with pottery.

The governor's mistake was enough for some to question whether he understands what the Potter Center for the Arts project is all about. Republican Rep. Greg Davids, of Preston, said he is disappointed by the governor's attack on the Chatfield project.

"It’s very unfair of the governor's office to criticize the city of Chatfield and their project when he simply doesn't understand it," Davids said.

This is not the first time that Pawlenty has gone after a Chatfield project. Two years ago, a proposal to build a Chatfield Brass Band and Music Lending Library drew sharp criticism from the governor. Some have questioned whether this Chatfield project is an attempt to quietly get the lending library done.

But Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young said that is not the case.

"This isn't the lending library project. This is a project that is a center for the arts in a much broader sense," he said.

Chatfield wants $4.5 million in state money to help renovate the historic Potter Auditorium and an elementary school building, changing them into a performing arts center. It would house the Wit's End Theater and the Chatfield Brass Band. It would also be available for regional theater groups looking to tour.

As for the lending library, Young said that there would be an opportunity to rent administrative space in the building, but that it would not be able to house a sheet music library. He said that both these buildings qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places and that the city wants to "try and breathe new life into them. That is the responsibility, and somebody has to step up and do that."


During the Senate floor debate, some Republicans argued that the construction borrowing bill is simply too big.

"We can't be about business as usual. We can't borrow and spend like this. Our state credit card is maxed out," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina.

At one point, an amendment was offered to strip funding for area projects including Mayo Civic Center, the National Volleyball Center and the Chatfield art center. That proposal never came up for a final vote.

Ultimately, senators voted 52-14 in favor of the bonding bill, with all southeastern Minnesota senators — both Republicans and Democrats — voting for the bill.

Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, said she is prepared to defend Rochester's projects — especially the $34 million request for Mayo Civic Center.

She added, "The Mayo Civic Center is uniquely situated to draw bioscience and medical-related conventions to this state that no other locality in Minnesota is situated to do. I think it makes a lot of good business sense to capitalize on that asset."

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