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Franken visits Two Harbors

Granite Gear co-owner Jeff Knight introduces U.S. Sen. Al Franken to the company's product line. Photo by Tammy Francois

Headquartered in an unassuming single-story structure set back from the road, Granite Gear gives little impression that its products travel the world, some protecting U.S. soldiers in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East.

On Saturday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken -- who's made numerous visits to the war-torn region overseas stopped by the Two Harbors-based company to talk about jobs, the impending sequestration and his vision for economic growth in the Arrowhead.

Amid good-natured conversation and handshakes, the Minnesota Democrat spoke of budget cuts slated to take effect Friday, acknowledging that they could have a long term impact on businesses.

"That's why we're going to stop sequestration, because I understand a lot of your sales are to the military," he said, referring to Granite Gear products such as body armor, ultra-light backpacks and duffle-type bags that are sold to the government, many to elite forces such as Navy SEALS.

Franken did not take issue with the idea of cutting the federal budget per se, but bristled at the idea that the impending cuts would indiscriminately eviscerate needed services rather than skimming fat from bloated budget items.

Greeting him were about 40 people, including the company's owners, Jeff Knight and Dan Cruikshank, their spouses and children, employees and family members. While many of the company's items are manufactured off-shore, Granite Gear is bringing some retail items for local production.

"Southeast Asia is great for mass-produced stuff, but you need a local plan to do more custom work," said Cruikshank, noting the 25-year-old company's success that includes securing government contracts for its products.

Cruikshank said doing business overseas can be challenging because Lake County does not yet have the technological infrastructure needed to support it, although it's in the works. He said that tools like Skype are useful for business purposes, but "we don't have the bandwidth to support that."

The senator agreed that renewed focus on technology is critical.

"Broadband is part of the infrastructure that will make a difference," said Franken, adding that domestic spending on things people and businesses really need is a priority right now, not building bombs.

We have a strong nuclear deterrent; we don't need to spend a lot more on that. Let's do broadband."

Dave Johnson, Granite Gear's sales manager said he enjoyed Franken's visit and that the senator seemed to understand the challenges of small businesses.

"We were very happy he came and we appreciated his insights," he said. As for the sequestration that may affect Granite Gear's military contracts down the road, Johnson said the company was taking a "wait and see approach."

"It's not clear yet how individual parts of the military will be affected. We'll just have to wait," Johnson said.

Later, in the upper level meeting room of Granite Gear's design cabin, made in part from reclaimed materials and overlooking the snow covered trees on the property, Franken spoke with the News-Chronicle about some of the critical issues facing northern Minnesota.

"A lot of my colleagues don't understand that there's hunger," he said, addressing Women, Infants and Children's nutrition programs that would see reductions if sequestration takes effect -- something he said, with the Arrowhead's distinction of having the highest rates of child hunger in the state, must be prevented.

"We need to have school breakfast, lunch and snack and summer (meal) programs for kids. One of the philosophical fights we have is that there are people who don't understand the level of hurt that exists out there," he said, adding that the current impasse in Congress and the recent fiscal cliff have not produced solutions to budgetary issues.

"A lot of things we talk about that make sense, can't happen because we're lurching from crisis to crisis. We can't lurch from one crisis point to another and make good policy. We need to do this in a methodical, rational way that reflects a deliberative process," Franken said.

In terms of economic growth in the region, Franken expressed cautious optimism about the potential of precious and semi-precious metal mining, as proposed by companies like Polymet -- "if," he said, "we can protect our water and we don't lower the bar" for mining companies.

Franken said he is awaiting the release of Polymet's supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement, expected soon, before he can comment on how well he believes the company would be able to abide by safeguards to protect the environment if sulfide mining is permitted. A supplemental draft environmental impact statement (EIS) is expected to address over more than two dozen "inadequacies" found by the EPA in the first EIS.

After the two-hour visit, Franken left for the Twin Cities, but also left a positive impression on Cruikshank.

"I think he's got a really good heart," Cruikshank said. "We have a really good team of senators with Franken and Amy Klobuchar."