Nice guy mends fences between Voyageurs and International Falls

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – Superintendent Mike Ward likes to show off the new Voyageurs National Park headquarters in International Falls. The enormous state-of-the-art building, completed in 2011, partly resembles an old saw mill to reflect the long history of milling and paper-making here.

Rethinking a Company Town

It’s also an olive branch from the federal government to this small city on the Canadian border, a way to smooth over long-held hard feelings toward the park. More than anyone else, Ward is the face of that effort.

Mike Ward, superintendent of Voyageurs National Park (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

“This was deemed a new model for the federal government,” he said, pointing out a recycled counter top in the foyer made of tiny bits of wood. “We have no operational cost to run it. We don’t pay utilities. We don’t put toilet paper on the rolls.” The $11.5 million building and grounds, which include a public amphitheater, are owned by the International Falls Economic Development Authority (EDA) but leased to the federal government for nearly $110,000 per month. “Nothing like this had happened before,” Ward said.

When Voyageurs was established in the 1970s, the federal government took private land, which rankled locals to the point where one person placed a towering statue of a voyageur on an island in protest. “This is the starting block for a new relationship,” said Ward.

If the financial arrangement has smoothed some ruffled feathers, so has the presence of Ward, an affable Illinois native who started as superintendent in 2008 after running the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis. “This was quite a change for me,” said Ward. While superintendent at the Grant site, he traveled the nation restoring other parks like Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas. But he was excited to bring his wife and two children to the north woods. “I wanted a more natural setting,” he said.

“I had come up for a conference here and fell in love,” he said. “I was enamored with the area. I was pressed by my boss at the time because of the headquarters opening.” Ward had seen projects from start to finish before. He also had a way of developing partnerships to get things done, a gift that would serve him well in International Falls.

Rather than standoffish or effete, Ward is a sportsman who deer hunts and does what he can to make way for snowmobiles in the park, emphasizing less sensitive areas unlikely to be damaged when the ground is frozen. “When I got here in 2008, there were 5,000 snowmobilers,” he said. “Now it was up to 20,000 last winter.”

Ward serves on various local committees, including the advisory board for the EDA, and he’s president of the International Falls Rotary Club. He’s praised by everyone from Bill Dougherty, co-owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats, who calls him a “remarkable” superintendent with a “great vision,” to former International Falls mayor and current EDA director Shawn Mason. “He is just phenomenal and incredible and we couldn’t be happier,” she said. “He wants to see this area succeed.”

If the park and the city are to work together to boost the local economy, Ward is the sort of direct but open-minded superintendent who can help pave the way.

The real test of his tenure, however, will be whether he can increase tourist traffic to the park. More visitors to the International Falls area could mean more jobs and businesses for the people who live here. It’s an important goal, especially now in the wake of massive layoffs at the local paper mill, completed in October. Last month also saw the sale of the mill to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America. Local people are anxious to diversify the job base here.

Certainly, the 218,000-acre Voyageurs National Park is a significant asset, located just east of the city. But how to build an economy around it is an open question, since tourism jobs can be seasonal or low-paying. Besides that, traffic to the park has been slow: Early estimates put visits at a million per year, but it only draws about a quarter that many.

“I believe the park is being underutilized,” said Ward, who runs a couple of tour boats and is instituting a system for reserving camp sites next year. He thinks if people know they have a site waiting for them, they’ll be more likely to make the trek from the Twin Cities or Duluth. But he said the real benefit will come when the community fully embraces the park and locals launch more outfitting companies and water taxi services. Those kinds of amenities draw tourists, Ward said. “I will do whatever I can to keep relationships going toward promoting the park and increasing the jobs available. It’s vital to keep this place alive.”

“There has never been a better time to market the park and get more related jobs here.”

It can be hard to get people excited about nature or aesthetics when they’re worried for their very economic survival, Ward acknowledged. But he thinks the relationship between Voyageurs and International Falls is strengthening, however slowly. “We’re only 40 years old,” he said. “We spent the first 30 of it arguing. Now we’re all working on this together.”