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Benson aims to replace loss with new industry

Erica Dischino / Tribune Stores line the street of downtown Benson. The loss of the power plant's 45 jobs will represent a significant loss to the city of Benson, according to a recent study by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, although the study did not look at the ripple effects to businesses in the community. The city is hopeful for new economic development to fully replace the jobs and tax base lost.

BENSON — The city of Benson is to receive $20 million over the course of four years as part of the legislation allowing the closure and dismantling of the Benson Power biomass facility.

Along with the legislation, there is a recent order from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approving the closure. Benson's mayor and the CEO of Xcel Energy have also signed an agreement for it, according to Rob Wolfington, Benson city manager. He said the city is now watching as the closure is challenged by the affected suppliers.

The plant closing will mean the loss of 45 jobs, and those workers live in Benson and the surrounding area, Wolfington said.

The city will also be losing one quarter of its tax receipts when the plant is dismantled. The legislation weans the city from the tax loss over a few years. The 50-megawatt power plant pays roughly $760,000 annually in property taxes to the city, Swift County, Benson School District and other entities.

The $20 million to be provided Benson will come from a Renewable Development Fund, and used by the city to promote economic development.

City leaders pressed for the amount during the 2017 legislative session. One year ago, city leaders had been working to attract an economic development project. In the worst case scenario, it was estimated that $19.9 million in infrastructure development, including extensive wastewater treatment upgrades, would be needed for the project, Wolfington said.

The city is continuing to work with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to make the project possible. No commitments have been made, and no agreements inked at this point, he said.

Wolfington declined to identify the project. Discussion in the community has focused on a dairy processor.

City officials had short notice of the plans to close the power plant when they went to the Legislature to seek help for the economic losses the city would experience, Wolfington said. He said the city wants to create new economic development to fully replace the jobs and tax base lost.

The hope is to make possible the project they were seeking before learning of the plant closing. "The takeaway is we have a plan,'' he said in reference to that work.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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