On a typical summer weekend, Taylors Falls, Minn., teems with visitors seeking a quaint getaway. They use the city as a launchpad for hikes through Interstate Park or canoe trips down the St. Croix River. They ride the historic paddlewheel boat or grab a burger at The Drive-In, where poodle-skirted carhops serve customers in classic cars.
But the idyllic vibe could change dramatically as early as this fall if Superior Silica Sands completes its deal to buy land in North Branch for a train-loading facility.
The sand company would then begin hauling sand from a plant in Barron, Wis., across the bridge over the St. Croix, then perhaps through the downtown of Taylors Falls and on to the North Branch facility. During the first phase of the expansion, about 100 trucks a day would lumber through town, rising to as many as 400 trucks (both ways) per day. The sand will be put on a train in North Branch and shipped to North Dakota, where it is used to extract oil.
So far, more than 3,000 people have signed a petition to stop the trucks, but last week the North Branch City Council voted to approve the deal with Superior Silica. Earlier objections from residents, Taylors Falls officials and the St. Croix Falls Chamber of Commerce seemed to derail the project, and Superior sent letters saying they were no longer interested in doing business in Minnesota.
But North Branch officials reached out to the company, and persuaded them to seal the deal, according to Taylors Falls Mayor Mike Buchite.
"Superior [Silica] Sands said they wanted to be a good corporate citizen and were no longer interested in the property," said Buchite. "I wonder what North Branch offered to get them to change their minds."
Bridgette Konrad, city administrator of North Branch, said that "we've heard their [Taylors Falls'] concerns and are trying to work with the company on alternate routes to keep them out of the downtown."
Konrad estimated the sand company deal would bring about a dozen jobs, but said there would also be opportunities for contract drivers and the railroad may also expand. She said they didn't know how much the deal will expand the city's tax base yet.
Buchite is hardly an anti-progress, anti-business tree-hugger. He isn't opposed to fracking or frac sand.
"I'm a conservative," Buchite said. "I don't care if the trucks are hauling frac sand, frozen pizzas or water. The volume of trucks is just unacceptable. You can't allow one business to ruin the other businesses in your town."
According to the Chamber of Commerce, tourism accounts for more than $231 million in the St. Croix River Valley. It's estimated that 1.9 million visitors and 20,000 vehicles pass through the area during a July day. Interstate Park is the second most popular park in the state, with 420,000 visitors per year.
In a July 14 letter to Buchite, Joyce Borchardt, acting mayor of North Branch, offered a compromise that Superior Sands would try not to use Hwy. 95 through Taylors Falls during the height of summer, but would take an alternate route — except when there is construction, which is planned on Hwy. 8 in 2016.
Buchite responded that the town "does not shut down after October. Tourism continues, businesses remain open year-round and more than half of the structures on Highway 95 are residential homes."
Buchite has thoroughly researched frac sand agreements in other areas, and knows the companies don't always keep their word after they get approval. Hwy. 95 through Taylors Falls is a state roadway, so if Superior wants to go through town, the city can do little to stop them.
I've seen this happen before. In 2012, I visited the small tourist town of McGregor, Iowa. At first, the town was thrilled with the possibility of new jobs, and the sand company had promised not to drive down the main street.
As soon as the city granted a permit, however, trucks started rolling through town every few minutes, all day and all night. Tourists complained and stopped coming.
When the McGregor mayor asked the owner of the sand company, "Why are you doing this to us?" the owner replied: "Because I can."
Taylors Falls resident Julie Hildebrand was hopeful when Superior initially pulled out of the deal with North Branch. Now she's concerned about her community.
"Superior Sands said there will be 100 trucks to start, but it intends to keep growing and has said it wants to be the largest in the industry," Hildebrand said. "We already have some frac sand trucks [from another company] coming through town, and our visitors and customers are already noticing it. We are already feeling stressed, and this would be much worse."
"They say they have the right to use the highway," said Hildebrand. "But when does a city have the right to protect itself from economic disaster?"
Wade Vitalis has owned the sparkling 1950s-style drive-in at the edge of town for 26 years, and he's afraid the truck traffic will jeopardize business.
"I have customers that came here as kids, and now they are bringing their kids here," Vitalis said. "The last four years, with high gas prices, business has been great. We're the perfect quick trip."
Since his customers dine outside or in their cars, frequent truck traffic will have a big impact on Vitalis' business. He also said his location is where they will likely begin to accelerate while leaving town.
"I understand they are looking to lower their costs," Vitalis said. "It's classic externalization of costs, at the expense of this town. This will be an absolute disaster. They will be ruining it for the state of Minnesota, frankly, because this area holds a special place in people's hearts, and they are going to lose that."
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