How to Spend $20 Million. Payments Would Be Opportunity, Heavy Burden

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How to Spend $20million

Payments would be Opportunity, Heavy Burden

 

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

 

Twenty million dollars.

That is an awful lot of money for a small town to be looking at for investing in economic development.  We don’t have it yet, but the odds are looking better that it might be coming our way.

While the Legislature passed the bill including the language that provides the city with four payments between 2018 and 2021 totaling $20 million, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it, the Minnesota Pubic Utilities (PUC) still has to weigh in.

Xcel Energy is seeking to purchase Benson Power, LLC, from its East Coast owners and proposes to shut it down. Electricity produced at Benson Power is generated by burning turkey litter and woodchips. That biomass power is around 10 times as expensive as power produced through solar, wind or natural gas.

However, because of an agreement it signed back in the 1990s to produce 125 megawatts of biomass power in exchange for storing spent nuclear fuel in casks on Prairie Island, it was required to continue buying Benson Power’s expensive electricity for another 11 years.

Only by legislatively ending the biomass mandate and buying out Benson Power can it get around buying that expensive power, saving its customers hundreds of millions of dollars. The legislation that was recently signed by Dayton also includes language ending the biomass mandate.

Xcel Energy will now file a request with the PUC that it be allowed to buy Benson Power with the goal of shutting the plant down. If the PUC approves the deal, 45 direct jobs at the plant will be lost, most likely in the summer of 2018. Another 100 jobs will be gone in industries and businesses that support its operation. The Benson area will lose millions annually in economic vitality.

The $20 million that is coming to Benson isn’t a gift; it is compensation for a terrible loss to our community. It is meant to give us a chance to replace the lost jobs and economic strength that Benson Power represents. It is meant to give us the ability to rebuild the tax base we will lose when the plant is gone.

So we had better do right by the people who are losing their jobs, the families that will be displaced, and for the community in how we spend that $20 million should it finally come our way. As we decide how to best spend that money for economic development, there are a lot of questions to ask.

We have to define what is “economic development?” Is it just bringing businesses and jobs to Benson? Or, does it also include improving and creating assets that draw workers to move to the area and stay here?

Is it putting up buildings to market to prospective industries?

Is it helping local businesses expand their operations?

Is it helping improve the housing stock in Benson so that people we are trying to bring to the community find what they are looking for?

Is it building a quality childcare facility adjacent to our schools that young parents looking at Benson as a home find attractive - one that meets the needs of parents so they can fill the job openings in the community?

Is it helping fund a senior living facility that keeps our seniors living here rather than having to move to another community? That new senior facility would create good-paying jobs and bring new people to the community.

Is it helping finance the improvements to the city’s water, wastewater, and electrical utilities that would be needed to bring a major employer to the community? That employer would also bring a significant capital investment in a facility that would pay real estate taxes that could make up for some or all of the $758,000 lost with Benson Power possibly being gone.

But at the same time, we must consider what the impact on existing businesses struggling for workers would be if we were to find that large employer willing to locate in Benson.

And that brings us to the question of what should we being doing to try attract new residents to the Benson area to meet current and future employer needs.

What brings millennials to a community? They are one component of the coming workforce that will replace the Baby Boom generation as it retires. Many millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, want more from life than a fulltime job. They want a community that offers a lifestyle and opportunities outside the job. That is where the definition of economic development necessarily gets expanded today.

Does Benson help finance the restoration of the city-owned and decaying Benson Golf Club into more than a seasonal clubhouse? Can it be a place with a unique atmosphere that attracts people year-round?

Does the city help finance a community center with a broad array of attractive features?

Do we help strengthen our schools so they are more attractive to families coming to the Benson area?

We also have to think ahead to consider what we might do to become a more welcoming community for immigrants. Swift County’s population is down by more than one-third since its peak of nearly 16,000 in the 1950s. It is below what it was in 1900. We are not going to be resettled by Europeans or Scandinavians. People will be coming from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa and other places.

Finally, does the city just sit on the money, doing nothing, waiting for the right opportunity? But then, as the saying goes, “he who hesitates is lost.”

If we do eventually get the funds, the first $4 million could be coming our way before June 30, 2018. In a planning scope of how we move our community forward that is just around the corner. We need to come together as a community to give city leaders a framework for what we believe are the priorities that replace the jobs and economic base we are likely to lose if Benson Power shuts down.

A community meeting, with city, Swift County and Benson Public School leaders, as well as any citizen interested in the future of the area, would be a good way to gather input. A facilitator trained in rural economic development could lead the discussion.

“Opportunity knocks but once. Taken at the tide, t’will lead to fortune. If denied, t’will never return.” – attributed to Shakespeare.
Twenty million dollars is a significant tide. How will we take advantage of it?

 

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