- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Mille Lacs Lake officials want people to know that the central Minnesota lake has more than just walleye fishing to offer, but they say they need the Legislature’s help to promote the area.

Representatives from Mille Lacs Lake made their case to lawmakers Monday for state aid to help advertise the region’s state parks, trails and other recreation amid a major drop-off in the lake’s walleye population. Businesses around the lake have struggled as anglers have turned elsewhere after the state imposed strict regulations meant to protect the prized fishery.

“It’s a constant battle to keep our name out there in a positive light,” Tina Chapman, executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council, told a Senate panel. “Time isn’t on our side. The Mille Lacs area needs your support.”

The latest blow for area businesses came last month when the Department of Natural Resources announced that 2016 walleye fishing would be restricted to catch-and-release with no live bait. That announcement followed the unprecedented early closure of walleye fishing on Mille Lacs last summer.

The reaction was swift: Chapman said one resort started receiving cancellation notices within minutes, and others reported up to 20 canceled reservations. State and local officials are working to restore the walleye population, but Chapman and others said businesses, including tackle shops and restaurants, need help in the meantime.

A bill from Sen. Carrie Ruud would provide $100,000 in advertising dollars over the next 18 months to promote the area and expand its reputation beyond walleye anglers. It mirrors a larger proposal Gov. Mark Dayton outlined in his own budget proposal.

“One of the things that we really need to do is talk about the wonderful positive things that are happening on Mille Lacs,” said Ruud, a Breezy Point Republican whose district swallows up the northern half of the lake.

The Senate’s natural resources committee didn’t vote on the bill Monday - it could get swept into larger discussions over how to handle a $900 million budget surplus. But several lawmakers voiced their support for providing aid to Mille Lacs, including Sen. Rod Skoe, who said the Legislature should go further by offering forgivable loans or property tax breaks to area businesses until the walleye rebounds.

“They’re going to have some years of downtime, I can see it,” the Clearbrook Democrat said. “Give them some resources … so they can figure out a way to survive until the walleye fishery comes back.”

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