City council makes dark sky proclamation and continues EDA/HRA merger discussions
Rhonda Silence

City council makes dark sky proclamation and continues EDA/HRA merger discussions

The city of Grand Marais recently joined Cook County and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in recognizing the significance of preserving dark skies in northeast Minnesota. 

During the April 12 city council meeting, a member of the local Cook County chapter of Starry Skies North, Mark Morgen, gave a dark sky presentation during the city council meeting and requested the city make a proclamation. The city agreed to make a dark sky proclamation following the presentation.

The proclamation came before the April 15 start of International Dark Sky Week, which celebrates the importance of preserving dark skies and reducing light pollution. The weeklong celebration will wrap up on April 22. 

“There’s a reason why we live here, and we really appreciate what we have,” Tracy Benson, the mayor of Grand Marais, said. “A proclamation is truly just that, recognizing that, honoring it.”

The Dark Sky Proclamation states:

WHEREAS, the beauty and wonder of a natural night sky is a shared heritage of all humankind and inherent to the character and allure of the state of Minnesota; and experiencing starry skies can encourage interest in science, nature, and art, especially among young people; and

WHEREAS, Minnesota is home to some of the last remaining pristine dark skies in the United States east of the Mississippi River, which preserves the cultural connection to the night sky for all residents who proudly call Grand Marais and Minnesota home; and while dark skies have been scientifically linked to positive health and environmental effects, and 99 percent of Americans, including the residents of Grand Marais live under light pollution; and

WHEREAS, Minnesota is home to Voyageurs National Park, recently designated as an International Dark Sky Park, and Boundary Waters Canoe Area, recently designated as the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world and which attracts thousands of visitors each year to enjoy the dark skies they offer, bringing economic benefits to Grand Marais and Northern Minnesota; and

WHEREAS, Grand Marais is located in a major migratory flyway in which hundreds of species of birds depend on darkness for safe migration, and Minnesota is home to hundreds of species of nocturnal animals and insects that depend on darkness for survival;

Therefore, I, Tracy Benson, Mayor of Grand Marais, Minnesota, do hereby declare April 15 – 22, 2023, as INTERNATIONAL DARK-SKY WEEK.


While the proclamation does not come with any established policies or ordinances, Benson said she hopes the proclamation will increase awareness and encourage everyone to be cognizant of light pollution in the city. 

“I also appreciate the efforts of groups like Mark’s because there’s a lot that needs to be done in our community,” Benson said. “And it really takes their efforts because you have to develop an expertise and an understanding of the subject matter. And they’re doing that for us.”


During the April 12 meeting, Steve Surbaugh, the president of the Economic Development Authority (EDA), and Mary Somnis, the chair of the Housing Redevelopment Authority (HRA), approached the city council to answer questions and have an open dialogue regarding the potential EDA/HRA merger

Discussions about the possible merger of the two entities have been ongoing for months following the resignation of EDA Director Beth Drost in Jan. If a merger were to occur, current HRA Director Jason Hale would likely lead the merged entities, with the addition of a staff member. 

Although Grand Marais Mayor Tracy Benson, who serves on the EDA, has introduced the proposition to the city council members, this was the first time that EDA and HRA approached the city council to discuss the possible merger. 

Each city council member shared their perspectives on the issue and asked questions. Many of the council members shared their concern that the merger would take focus away from solving the housing crisis in Cook County. 

“I am concerned about not having a dedicated entity going after that,” Michael Garry, a city council member, said. “I’m very concerned that we’ve just started with the HRA, and now we’re saying, ‘Oh, but wait, we’re going to put these things together.’” 

Councilor Ben Peters shared a similar concern, “I’m just having a hard time seeing an upside to the housing by doing this combined. It’s going well, and I just don’t see how the EDA can benefit Jason’s efforts to build houses.” He added, “That, to me, is not obvious to me.”

Surbaugh and Somnis assured that the merger would keep the focus on housing. In fact, they said it would allow more efficiency and opportunities for both entities. 

“I think there are some advantages to a combined organization,” Surbaugh said. He explained that it would allow two staff members to work on the combined projects of the HRA and EDA. “Having two people being able to attack those problems from sort of the two different levels would be very useful.”

In addition to housing-related concerns, Benson shared her thoughts about the potential board makeup if both entities merged. If the merger were approved, the new board would consist of seven members. The county would appoint four members, and the city would appoint three. 

Per EDA statutes, active EDA board members have to serve out their six-year term unless they voluntarily step down. The EDA board consists of a seven-member board, while the HRA board consists of a five-member board. Currently, the EDA has one county-appointed seat open, as does the HRA. 

“So we still have more interested people to participate, then there is room,” Benson said. “So to me, that’s still something we have to kind of think through.”

Benson said the city council members would take some time to think about the possible merger and wait to hear from the public if there needs to be further conversation. Councilor Craig Schulte was absent from the April 12 meeting. 

Looking ahead, Surbaugh and Somnis will attend the May 9 Cook County Board of Commissioners meeting to discuss the possible merger and answer any remaining questions.

WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with Grand Marais Mayor Tracy Benson following the April 12 city council meeting. Audio from the interview is below.