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Our woman in St. Paul bids farewell: a tribute to Judy Erickson and her work within Cook County

Jun 07, 2024 01:08PM ● By Content Editor

Judy Erickson speaks at the 2022 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Gitchi-Gami State Trail segment from Cut Face Creek to Grand Marais. Photo courtesy of the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association.

By Jim Boyd for Boreal Community Media - June 7, 2024

Lobbyist Judy Erickson’s Cook County saga began in 1989 when the Legislature created Grand Portage State Park, protecting the High Falls of the Pigeon River. It was important that the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa support the proposal. Working with Tribal Chair, Norm Deschampe, agreement was reached with the DNR to co-manage the park. Grand Portage State Park is the only U.S. State Park jointly managed by a state and a Native American Band. Judy was Executive director, and lobbyist for the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota at the time. 

Now, 35 years later, Judy’s Cook County saga is coming to an end. At the adjournment of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2024 session a few weeks ago, Judy retired, closed her business, Conservation Strategies, Inc., and ended her formal relationship with Cook County.

In those intervening years, Judy invested unstinting amounts of intelligence, energy, and friendship in working to benefit the people of Cook County. Here is a partial list of her contributions:

Gitchi-Gami State Trail: Following her successful work on the Pigeon River, Judy was enlisted to help create a safe trail along the North Shore for walkers, bikers, and joggers. Scott Harrison, then owner of Lutsen Resort, recalls a period when he was chair of the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association (GGTA) charged with raising state construction funds. He reached out to Judy, then still working for the Parks & Trails Council, “For help with match funding from Minnesota. She got me in front of the key legislators whose support would be helpful in getting state bonding. She joined me every time I had meetings at the Capitol and with the DNR. She was particularly helpful in getting me acquainted with our two legislators so I could work directly with them.” 

Harrison also recalls with affection the apple pies Judy would bring for him and others each fall. Judy, her husband Jim, and her son, Sam, operate an apple orchard in Shafer, MN. 

Dennis Rysdahl, then owner of Bluefin Bay in Tofte and an early champion of the trail, recalls with admiration how Judy had “Tons of connections in the Legislature. She was well-known, well-liked, and opened lots of doors. She was always really good at giving us insights before we met Legislators. We felt we were well coached.”

Over the next 25 years, Judy successfully lobbied on behalf of funding for numerous segments of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, usually a few miles and a few million dollars at a time. 

Michelle Pierson is an employee of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission who serves as the GGTA Executive Director. She has worked closely with Judy over the years and says, “Judy has helped us work with legislators to carry the importance of the trail to a wide group of state stakeholders. We are so grateful for Judy’s help in telling the story of why this trail is important to the communities along the North Shore, and to all the visitors who come to experience the magic it holds.”

Lutsen Mountains and Poplar River Management Board: Judy left the Parks & Trails Council in 2010 and engaged a broader set of lobbying clients. Her successful work on the Gitchi-Gami brought her to the attention of the Lutsen Mountains and the Poplar River Management Board. They needed help securing state funds for a pipeline that would provide Lake Superior water for snowmaking and funds for restoring the impaired Poplar River. The Poplar River restoration was a great success. Building the pipeline involved a string of mishaps and required returning to the Legislature twice for additional funding – something legislators really dislike.  But Judy got it done.

Cook County Chamber: In 2013, the newly formed Cook County Chamber was in need of someone to represent it at the Legislature. Scott Harrison recalls that Judy was “The obvious choice to lead the county in St. Paul due to her excellent relationships at the Capitol, her skills, experience, and her knowledge of and credibility with Cook County leadership.” 

As the Chamber Executive Director then, I worked directly with Judy over the next decade. We enjoyed each other, had complementary skills, and became a strong team.  Each fall, we would meet with the Chamber board to set a legislative agenda for the following year, usually 2-3 priorities. Each spring, we would make trips to St. Paul to meet with key legislators and pitch our issues. Judy would continue pushing our priorities through the entire session, working to ensure our issues got the attention they deserved. More than once, someone from Cook County made the drive to St. Paul because Judy had arranged for us to give 5 minutes of testimony before a committee -- 10 hours travel for 5 minutes of presentation! But it worked.

Cook County Higher Ed: One long-range Chamber project was improving state funding for Cook County Higher Ed. First with Paula Sundet Wolf and then with Karen Blackburn, Judy worked diligently to increase the Higher Ed annual state appropriation. It went from an initial $100,000 annually to more than $300,000. In the process, Karen and Judy formed a strong friendship, which endures. 

“Judy made it easy to move around the legislative buildings,” Blackburn said. “She physically knew her way around” the buildings, including secret places to stash coats, and “around the legislator’s assistants’ hearts”.

“She was able to make personal connections with me and the Legislator I was talking to – like, “Oh, Karen likes canoeing in the BWCA just like you” type of thing. And she always made an effort to meet me for Taco Tuesday at the MnDOT cafeteria. I think she was nervous having me testify the first time, but since then, she knew I could do what I needed to do.”

Karen Blackburn and Judy Erickson

Workforce Housing Development Program: In early 2017, Judy called from St. Paul: Legislation had been filed to create a new $4 million Workforce Housing Development Fund. But the draft had a problem: Cook County wasn’t eligible. Housing was a critical issue for us; we worked on it closely with Executive Director Mary Somnis and the board of the Cook County-Grand Marais Economic Development Authority (EDA). 

Our immediate interest in 2017 was securing some of that new workforce housing money for a rental housing project that the EDA and One Roof Community Housing of Duluth were working to build in Lutsen.

To make that possible, Judy and I got inserted into the authorizing legislation some peculiar language. We couldn’t mention Cook County, so we offered language extending eligibility to “An area served by a joint county-city economic development authority formed under Laws 1988, chapter 516 section 1.” There was only one: Ours. One Roof got a grant of $466,976 from the new fund. The $4 million soon was depleted, but in 2023, the Legislature authorized new funding of $39 million. Thanks to our work in 2017, Cook County remains eligible for those funds when most of rural Minnesota is not. This may yet become our most important policy success.

Mary Somnis remembers another project Judy spearheaded: “One of the best things (from my EDA perspective) was changing the law about the Business Development Public Infrastructure Grant Program at MN DEED.  This change enabled the addition of residential housing at Cedar Grove Business Park.  Local business owners and their employees can now live and work in one place, avoiding the expense of two development projects.  The change in the law was statewide, thereby benefiting other communities.

“Perhaps the thing that I value the most was the relationships that Judy had with people at every level in state government.  Judy was highly regarded and respected.  I can't imagine a better representative for Cook County at the Legislature and the Governor's Office.  While navigating the political climate and culture, she consistently carried our message and accomplished so many successes!

“Oh - and apples and apple pie.”  

When Grand Marais wanted a new public water access in Grand Marais Harbor, the Chamber offered strong support, including Judy’s assistance at the Legislature.  The process took years, but with Judy’s help, the project got the state funding it needed. 

City Park & Rec Director Dave Tersteeg reflects that, “Judy is one of the big reasons the City of Grand Marais is now home to the most thoughtfully designed public water access on Lake Superior. Our Parkside project was 10+ years in the making, and when we ran into funding questions and shortfalls mid-way through, it was the local Chamber of Commerce that stepped up. After all, we wanted more than what the DNR was willing to spend. We wanted a new break wall that not only protected the boats at the launch but gave everyone the chance to stroll (or roll) out onto the bay.

The DNR said, ‘No problem - if you have an extra million.’  Once the Chamber identified Parkside as a priority project and offered Judy’s services, I had a good feeling we'd find that extra million. And I was right; my good feeling became a reality. Judy knew all the right people, in all the right places. She calmed me down and gave me focus when I had to present to the Senate bonding committee (twice). Her professionalism and positivity were the perfect combination for success. I'm sure she's done a lot of good for a lot of people and projects, but for Grand Marais, she gave us the chance to walk on water. Thanks, Judy!”

 Jim Boyd, Mary Somnis, Judy Erickson and Paula Sundet Wolf at the Capitol

And more: Judy had her hand in so many other projects it would be impossible to list them all here.  One memorable effort produced grudging cash funding for a Chik Wauk building project. And there was an intricate, big-team, hugely important effort to change the state property tax classification for short-term rental housing, saving those properties statewide from a huge and unjustified tax increase. We took our concern to Sen. Tom Bakk, and he said, “Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution.”

So we did, with a lotta help. 

Judy’s contributions went far beyond dry, nerdy issues like tax policy to include her friendship and her annual fall offering of bags of apples and apple pies. Almost every person contacted for this report mentioned those apples and those pies.

Happy retirement, Judy! You’ve done so much to help improve the quality of life in Cook County. You will always be greeted warmly here – but don’t forget the pies.

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