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Stepping Wright up

Tiny city thinks big, starting with new city hall

With plans for a first-ever city hall followed by cascading improvements from there, city leaders in Wright are aiming big in an attempt to provide more for residents and families.

"Wright has always been the wild, wild West of Carlton County, and everybody kind of turned a blind eye to us and what's happened out here," city councilor Terri Lott told the Pine Knot earlier this month. "It was our business."

Lott, mayor Donovan Ranta and fellow councilors Jerri Haugan and Gene Lott, Terri's husband, invited the newspaper to the city to discuss plans for the town of 168 people about 30 miles due west of Carlton.

"We want to improve our park; we want to improve our pavilion and provide more amenities," Terri said.

"We're talking about, even this year, adding a farmers market, and (next winter) a skating rink," the mayor said. "We want to offer more."

"There's really not a lot for them to do in terms of events close to home where they can be with their families," Haugan said. "We want to make them proud of their community."

It's not going to be easy. The 2022 tax levy in city limits was $67,699 - only six other cities come within 2 percent of Wright's taxing capacity.

"So, we're on the bottom," Terri said.

But that's not stopping them. They attended a session with the League of Minnesota Cities to learn how grants and solicitations from private enterprises such as hospitals, railroads and industry can boost a small city's outcomes. The city's first grant, for $4,500, is paying for a grant navigator from nearby McGregor to help them collect more grant funding. Admittedly, the city leaders are working from scratch. The world of grant writing can be daunting and filled with hoops.

"We've very excited and we're determined," Haugan said. "We're confident we will make it happen; it's just a matter of how and when."

The addition of a new $325,000 city hall figures to be the first piece of the puzzle. The city received a tax-forfeited piece of land from the county on Fourth Street in 2022. It's next door to the senior center and is a vacant lot at the moment, with the old residence having been razed.

Since the 1970s, the city council has held its meetings at the city fire hall, and held a tiny office there for the city clerk and to house records.

But with the merger of Cromwell and Wright fire departments into a fire district that will begin taxing authority this year, the expanded fire and ambulance services need the space.

The district will cover part of Aitkin County to the west, all the way up to Carlton County line north of Wright and as far south as Automba Road, and east to just about Sawyer. The district will provide mutual aid to areas throughout Carlton County too.

"They need to grow; they need their space for training," Gene said. "(And) we want to provide for the community, not only a city hall for ourselves, but we want to provide a place for activities for our community and surrounding townships."

A local contractor designed a proposed 40-by-60-foot city hall building that features a meeting room, garage, two bathrooms, office and a kitchen, along with a covered porch all on one level.

Not only would a city hall be used for governance and to store the city's maintenance equipment, it would be a revenue generator too for graduation parties, family reunions, anniversaries, training sessions for nursing, babysitting and first aid, and even vaccination clinics. The antiquated senior center next door is still heated by a woodstove and its representatives have expressed strong interest in using a new city hall, too.

"Nobody I've talked to has said, 'Well, why are you doing it?'" Ranta said. "They say, 'It's about time.'"

The city has $50,000 set aside for the project, and 160 acres outside of town that's city-owned and on the real estate market for $240,000. The land was gifted to the city in the 1940s, with plans to build an airstrip. That never materialized, and now city leaders are hoping to parlay the wooded hunting acreage into the lion's share payment of the city hall project.

It's important to capitalize now, they said, because the dynamics of the city are changing. There are more younger families than before.

"We were kind of stagnant for a while," Terri said. "Now, all of a sudden, it's switching to younger, family-oriented."

City leaders described a blue-collar town made up of loggers, health care workers and a large beef cattle operation within city limits. There's a co-op store, post office and lumber yard. The old Big Top gathering hall is a place where folks congregate during the summer's Wrong Days in Wright celebration. It's where locals planned larger wedding dances, but it's mostly a shell of a building now, needing insulation and repairs to a leaky roof and flood-damaged interior.

"We have no intention of tearing it down; in fact, we want to improve that and make that better as well," Terri said.

"But as far as investment," Haugan added, "we saw city hall as a priority, then moving onto Big Top and the city park."

The city park now features primitive outhouses, but new solar bathroom facilities in nearby Tamarack have the Wright city leaders thinking that's something they want to add to their town, too.

The city has a new internet provider, SCI Broadband, which figures to improve service dramatically to the community. The Wright Community Club, the organizers of the summer's celebration, has taken control of updating the baseball field, which is used by the Cromwell and Wright youth baseball. And a recent gentlemen's agreement with the Carlton County Sheriff's Office means more patrols to help cut down on things like vandalism.

Following a meeting with Sheriff Kelly Lake and chief deputy Dan Danielson, the city spent $6,000 to install 20 lights throughout town to help illuminate everything for residents.

Additionally, the city delivered letters to residents reminding them of city codes and asking for yards to be kept reasonably clean and free of unsightly collections of stuff.

"The letters to all residents were hand-delivered, stating our ordinances, what we expected, and that we take pride in our properties," mayor Ranta said. "The response, for the most part, has been positive. Nobody kicked us off their property or shot at me or anything like that."

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