West Central Tribune / Tom Cherveny
WILLMAR — Anglers are often accused of stretching the truth, but these guys proved to be straight shooters:
When Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bonding bill Wednesday, he held true to a promise made in a fishing boat to approve an earmark for the state Highway 23 project.
The bonding bill includes $105 million to complete the seven- and nine-mile “gaps” in the four-lane between New London and Paynesville and between Paynesville and Richmond, making the entire Highway 23 route from Willmar to Interstate 94 a four-lane roadway.
“(It’s a) big day for our community,” said Kelly Morrell, who won the promise of support from Dayton and his boatmates on Green Lake for the Governor’s Fishing Opener on May 12. Morrell served as fishing guide for the governor and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Morrell had a captive audience on his boat that day, and before returning to shore with his guests, he made an emotional plea for funding. He told them how the community was mourning the loss of Highway 23 accident victim Nathaniel Shumaker, 11, of New London.
Morrell said he reached shore confident the funding would be provided, but the last few weeks of the legislative session left many others wondering.
“I was surprised at all the drama,” said Morrell of what followed the fishing opener.
But he said he remained confident: “I thought it was a done deal. I thought there was so much harmony in the boat, where everybody agreed to it,” he said.
Dayton gave him a fist bump and handshake on the deal. The legislators noted that the governor had agreed that this was one earmark he would not veto.
“It went so smoothly. I really think God’s handiwork was involved in the whole thing because it was so warmly received,” Morrell said. “It was unbelievable.”
Morrell said he was happy to be one of the cogs in the wheel that helped advance the long-sought funding for Highway 23. He said that by all means, the credit belongs to the many local citizens and elected officials who have worked for years to secure the funding.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, reported that it will take a couple of years before construction occurs. The funding will make it possible to begin the study and design work needed before construction begins.
“This will make Highway 23 safer, increase commerce for cities along this stretch, and make it easier to travel in west central Minnesota,” Baker said in a statement.