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Economic impact is brought to the table

DICKINSON - Opportunity was the buzz word for Beulah Jobs Development Association Director John Phillips.

Opportunity was the buzz word for Beulah Jobs Development Association Director John Phillips.

Phillips was one of several speakers at a public meeting held by Great Northern Power Development LP this past Wednesday at the Days Inn-Grand Dakota Lodge and Conference Center.

The meeting was the second that presented information and insights into different aspects of a $1.4 billion coal gasification plant proposed by Great Northern to be near South Heart.

The Dickinson meeting drew fewer people than the first one in January that was at the South Heart Public School gymnasium. Last week's meeting, how ever, added some new information from Phillips and Ron Lisko of Stark County Jobs Development Authority.

Voice of experience

Phillips discussed his experience in Beulah where he lives.

He worked and raised his family there during the height of the energy industry era in the 1970s and 1980s. Phillips continues to be involved in the area's economic development today.

He discussed what his experience was in coal country and how it could translate to Great Northern's proposed plant and mine in South Heart.

"The quality of life and health and safety in that area has been superb," Phillips said of living in Beulah. "We've never had an issue with any of that. It's never been compromised."

Phillips owned a business in Washburn when the Coal Creek Station and Falkirk Mine were in full swing. He later moved to Beulah to be the city's planner and development director. Phillips also is an at-large member on the executive committee of the Economic Development Association of North Dakota.

"We need to look at this objectively," Phillips said of the proposed South Heart project. "I understand there are a lot of people with a lot questions and who may be unsure about all this. We need to trust the leadership in the area, the elected officials...our state agencies, because there are a lot of checks and balances with them."

You don't build these plants and industries because it's easy, he added.

"There's a tremendous amount of work and information provided and security for communities, no matter where you live," Phillips said. "As things move forward, you never compromise a community to encourage a project go in the area. I don't think any communities so far have compromised anything."

From Phillips' experience, he realizes the needs and concerns people have about a project of this magnitude, including infrastructure such as housing, schools, population increases and stabilization, generated revenue and more.

Phillips said the possible 200-plus permanent workers who would come with the proposed South Heart project will be diverse, have needs and an economic impact on not just the town, but the county and southwestern North Dakota.

"In Beulah, we have about 35 percent, or about 2,000 workers in the industry employment within a 10-mile radius," he said. "There's commuting from Dickinson, Minot and Bismarck. We know they're not all going to live here, but I'd hope you could provide opportunities where you can capture some of them to live here."

Phillips is aware of the declining population for many towns in the state.

"Can we do something about it?" he asked. "We looked at that and if Beulah is going to become 5,000 people. No, we're being realistic with that...but we are going to remain stable at 3,200. Stability is more important right now as any population gains."

Beulah's current issue with its population is addressing the needs of those who started out during the boom time and are now retiring. It also is dealing with a young population of new employees coming in to replace those retiring.

"In 1990, the average age in Beulah was 30 and we have an 86-bed nursing home counted in that," Phillips said. "In 2000, the average age was 40, but what will be interesting now in the next census is what the average age will be because we're seeing more younger people moving into the community with the retirees. We're a young community."

Phillips sees the population stability and increase would be a benefit to South Heart and the surrounding area. He also understands the issues of addressing infrastructure needs when workers pour into a small community at once.

"In Beulah, during the impact era, we had man-camps that housed 1,000 people," Phillips said. "We had a couple RV parks and over 400 rental units that were absolutely full. We had a mobile home that parked 300 people that had a waiting list nearly that long and another mobile home park that housed 200 people."

People were there for a number of years because of all the work at the time, he added.

"That's why at one time Beulah had a population of well over 5,000 people, but fully knowing not all would be permanent residents, we did a special census," Phillips said. "We gained on the revenue made, even if you're a construction worker with a mobile home for three years, you're a resident."

The special census was done since the regular one is only done every 10 years, he added.

Phillips said people will be gone after a while, but certainly there's revenue opportunity to be had while they are around.

Phillips also talked about spin-offs of further economic opportunities, but not everything falls into your lap.

"When industry was at the height of expansion in Beulah, we didn't concentrate on getting industry support businesses because we just thought they'd be there," he said. "That's not how it works. I think if you have all the tools in can recruit and visit with these industry support companies."

The multiplier effect

Lisko discussed the continual economic impact of the proposed plant, or what he called the multiplier effect during his presentation Wednesday.

"The multiplier effect is saying in essence people working at the mine and plant are going to buy food, buy clothes, go to the dentist and participate in entertainment opportunities," Lisko said.

Lisko worked with North Dakota Job Service in the 1970s and 1980s and remembers well the oil and industry boom.

He can see the differences between now and then regarding who is hired, how they are hired and the job skill sets required and needed.

"The people who did the hiring were the drillers and in many cases people came in and were hired, whether or not...they could do the job," Lisko said. "The driller no longer does the hiring. The company hires people from wherever their head office is...they are looking for people qualified. You can go on the Internet and apply online."

People from out of state can apply without having to always come into the area right away, he added.

"Many looking at these sites are former North Dakotans because I think a lot of people would like to come back to North Dakota," Lisko said. "We have a lot of jobs, high-paying ones in the oil fields, but we have many people with education beyond those jobs and some who would not be able to survive in the oil fields."

As an example of this, Lisko did his own case study on the employees at the Red Trail Energy LLC ethanol plant in Richardton.

"Red Trail Energy's total employment is about 40 individuals and returning North Dakotans that came back for jobs from out of the state were 20, or 50 percent," Lisko said. "I think that's magnificent. The average age at the plant is 29. These are the people with families...their going to make the difference whether we can really serve the youth in North Dakota."

The youth is our future in this state, he added.

"We spend a lot of money educating our people, but unfortunately we're losing them," Lisko said. "We're an older state, the average age is 37."