Capitalizing On Our Opportunities

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

In many ways, 2018 was a good year despite what could have otherwise been seen as a year of loss and decline for the community.

We lost Benson Power, once known as Fibrominn, with its 45 full-time jobs and support for perhaps another 100 jobs in the area, its $8 to $10 million economic impact, and its $765,142 in local taxes paid to Benson, Swift County, and Benson Public Schools.

We saw our school continue to struggle against the impact of declining enrollment on its ability to provide all the classes and facilities our children deserve.

We saw the farm economy continue to struggle as low commodity prices persist and we saw its ripple effect on main street.

Swift County’s population continues to decline, as does that in much of rural agricultural America, with fewer residents meaning fewer people in our churches; fewer children in our schools; fewer people to buy homes; fewer people buying groceries and patronizing our pharmacies; fewer people keeping our small boutique businesses alive; and fewer people to start new businesses.

As a final blow, the school board was forced to drop its proposed use of the civic center for a new gymnastics facility, as well as other activities, after renovation costs became too high.

Despite what would seem like an oppressive weight against future success based on what you read above, our community is poised for significant opportunity in 2019.

$20 million from Xcel

In 2019, Benson should be receiving the second payment from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund (RDF) as we collect on $20 million promised the community over four years. Those funds are meant to spur economic development to address the economic blow represented by the loss of Fibrominn.

Last July, Benson received a $4 million payment with another $6 million coming our way at the end of June. A $6 million payment is due in June 2020 and a final $3 million in June 2021.

As Benson negotiated the $20 million payment with Xcel and the Minnesota Legislature, the primary goal for the funds was to aid with the construction of a cheese plant just south of Benson. However, that investment seems off the table due to low milk prices.

If not a cheese plant, then what? First, we have to define what economic development is for the Benson area.

For decades, economic development meant providing buildings to businesses that created jobs and helping local entrepreneurs expand facilities. But a new dynamic is at work today. We have the jobs, but are desperate for employees.

“People creation” is the overwhelming challenge. How do we attract workers and get them to live here?

Xcel’s funds are there to support our efforts, but should not limit our thinking, or define our goals, as we look ahead.

Innovating thinking

Who would have thought a year ago that affordable, readily available, year-round school-based daycare would be identified as a primary economic development goal for the community?

It was a need our community recognized, with school, county and city officials all looking to how they could address the issue. Local business and industry were on board with finding a solution, pledging funds to support it.

Our board of education took the lead and expanded daycare at the school to accommodate the lives of working women and men. It now takes kids starting at six weeks old with the hours starting at 5:30 a.m. and going until 6:30 in the evening.

Today, the community’s school-based daycare is considered one of the most innovative in the state and rural America. And, it is likely to become a focus of the community’s economic development promotion efforts in the coming year.

Brightmark Energy

While we’ve lost Fibrominn, there is the very real possibility that a new industry will replace it even as the biomass electric plant’s generation facility is dismantled in the coming year.

San Francisco-based Brightmark plans to develop a methane digester operation to produce natural gas on the Fibrominn site.  The anaerobic digesters would use biomass that could include animal and poultry manure, sugar beet waste, and other products. That gas would go to the nearby Alliance Pipeline.

Brightmark has successfully bid for the fuel hall, administration building, truck washing facilities, scale and road infrastructure in an auction conducted for the Xcel-owned facility.

BME is looking at an initial investment of $100 million with a total investment of near $250 million if the project is fully developed.

$26.3 million school building levy

In May, District 777 voters overwhelmingly passed a $26.3 million building bond levy will:

- Add a new wing to the west end of the Northside Elementary School dedicated to infant and toddler daycare, pre-school children, and the Discovery Kids program.

- Add new classrooms at the senior high dedicated to 21st Century learning approaches and construct a new practice band room.

- Convert the indoor swimming pool space to a gym.

- Build a new performing arts center to replace the 1928 Junior High School Auditorium.

Work is already underway and represents an investment in the community’s future that should help us draw in new residents and workers.

Opportunities are what you make of them. The City of Benson is looking at how it moves forward in 2019, with the possible hiring of an economic development director to coordinate our efforts. We support this move wholeheartedly. After decades of covering local governments in this community, we have seen far too many examples of how good intentions are sidelined due to a lack of focused staffing and follow through.

Our current city leadership is well aware of the challenges we face. It has also expressed a commitment to making the most of the opportunities coming our way in 2019.

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