WILLMAR — It has taken almost 10 years and two grant applications, but it looks like Epitopix will finally receive city sewer and water services at its animal vaccine manufacturing plant on the west side of Willmar.
"We now have it in our grasp, to do it today," said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
The city of Willmar's application for a $1.3 million Innovative Business Development Public Infrastructure Program grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development was accepted by the department in mid-October. Backman shared the news at the Nov. 4 Willmar City Council meeting.
The grant funds will pay to extend city sewer to the manufacturing plant on 45th Street Northwest, about a half of a mile from the Willmar city limits. The project would extend the sewer system approximately 6,400 feet from Epitopix to the main north-south interceptor sewer line, located directly east of Timber Wholesalers. The estimated cost for the sewer expansion is $1.3 million.
The application of $1.3 million was approved in full. This means there are no required matching funds needed from the city or Epitopix.
"That's good," Backman said. "That doesn't happen very often."
Willmar and Epitopix will have to pay for the water expansion. The new water main line would extend about 3,200 feet from Epitopix to the line just south of Northern Metal Recycling, traveling south and east. The estimated cost of this is approximately $900,000. How the costs will be split between the city and the company still needs to be decided.
Bolton and Menk Engineering designed both projects and provided the city with cost estimates.
The City Council still needs to accept the grant award from DEED. Staff from the EDC, city and Epitopix have been working together to review the grant approval agreement.
"We are working with staff to work through that process, it doesn't happen overnight," Backman said.
The project will also require the annexation of nearly 100 acres of land into the city of Willmar. Properties that will end up within the city limits when the annexation is completed include Quam Construction, Epitopix, the old Fabric Warehouse location, PALS Inc. and land owned by BNSF Railway.
While the grant monies would be available through December 2022, there is an urgency to get the project completed well before then. In a few short years, a portion of the route for the new utility pipes will be covered by the Willmar Wye railroad bypass track. Once the track is laid, Epitopix would be cut off from hooking up to city services. The road portion of the Willmar Wye project has already begun.
"Work is preceding now on Highway 12," Backman said.
Currently, Epitopix has to truck nearly 22,000 gallons of wastewater, created during the vaccine manufacturing process, to the city's wastewater treatment plant. This is costly and time-consuming for both Epitopix and the city. The lack of adequate water service has also led to the plant not having a fire sprinkler system. Both issues would be solved with the expansion of the utilities.
The utility expansion project is also needed so that Epitopix and its parent company Vaxxinova can move forward with significant planned expansion at the company.
"They cannot make that investment if there is inadequate sewer to the site," Backman said.
In the next five years, Vaxxinova has plans to expand its manufacturing levels at Epitopix, which could bring close to $15 million in capital investment to the Willmar plant. There are also plans to add an additional 17 technical and high-wage jobs over the same time.
"I am very excited about this. The new jobs for the community is awesome. We want the professional jobs," said Councilor Fernando Alvarado.
The council needs to accept the grant before the funds will become available, and final design and planning will need to be completed before construction can begin.
"There is a lot of work ahead of us," said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin.