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Welk: Chokio's ethanol plant '99.9 percent a go'

By Nick Ripperger

Chokio Review

After months of getting only sketchy information about the status of a proposed ethanol plant on the outskirts of Chokio, the city council Tuesday evening was nearly overloaded with it.

Developer Bill Welk's specific purpose was to request that the city annex 20 acres adjacent to the west side of town and turn it into a Tax Increment Financing district.  Those acres are now in Baker Township.

A TIF district allows a business to apply what otherwise would be tax money toward installing infrastructure.  The city would be losing no tax money, first because it wasn't getting any to start with, and second because in an undeveloped state, the land would produce little tax revenue anyway.

In conjunction with the request, Welk outlined his vision for the site, which is much more ambitious than his original plans as he presented them to the council and the public late last year.

Welk said that he wants to turn the site into what he called "a Chokio agri-center," which would feature not only the 100-million gallon per year ethanol plant, called MinnDak Renewable Energy, but also a small business center that would include a gas station, fuel delivery service, convenience store, cafe, seed dealership, and crop insurance agency.

In essence, he said, he wanted to cater to the needs of the farmers doing business with his plant, as well as to the more than 70 employees he anticipates will be working at the plant.

Welk said he has not been very public about his plans because he wanted to wait until he was sure the plant was going to be built.  On Tuesday, he said it is "99.9 percent a go." Securing a useable water supply was the final major detail that had to be taken care of, and now it has been, he said.

The source of that water will be the Chippewa aquifer, part of which is in eastern Stevens County.  The Western Prairie Rural Water system, with financial help both from Welk and the proposed Denco II ethanol plant near Alberta, plans to build a water treatment plant using the aquifer's water and distribute it not only to the ethanol plants, but also to individual rural customers who sign up for it.

Welk said that MinnDak Renewable Energy could purchase all of its water from WPRC if necessary, but offered to buy about 20 percent of Chokio's untreated water, assuming the aquifer is adequate, to help the city pay off its new water filtration plant sooner than it would otherwise.  That could mean drilling an additional well, he acknowledged.

"We are trying to be a good neighbor," he said.  "We're trying to get some cash rolling here."

As part of being a "good neighbor," Welk said plans call for the plant itself, and the activities directly associated with it, to be as far away from the city and Highway 28 as is practical on the 60-acre parcel.  Among other things, plans call for a berm to be built on the property adjacent to St. Mary's church and planted with grass and trees which will somewhat obscure the view of the plant.

Regarding the 20 acres he would like the city to annex and turn into a TIF district, Welk said the administrative buildings would be located there.  A water line is nearby, but a sewer line is not.  He requested the city bring a sewer line to the property, where he could hook up to it with a private line.

His proposing a new cafe at the site took council members by surprise, considering the fact that the Economic Development Authority recently finalized plans to help restauranteur John Fischer re-establish the Chokio Cafe downtown.

Welk said that Fischer would be welcome to run the cafe at the ethanol plant site instead, and would charge him no rent to do so.  He suggested that that might be a better business decision because of all the potential customers on the site, as well as farmers and others frequenting it.

Regarding his plans to establish a seed company, Welk said it could be a profitable business for him as well as being a perk for farmers who sell their corn to MinnDak.

Welk said he wanted to be the "biggest seed seller in the county," in part by offering specialized corn hybrids that would produce more ethanol and in turn bring a higher price to farmers selling it for that purpose.

Welk said he hopes to get his final permits in January, and groundbreaking could start as early as next April.

Council members digested Welk's presentation and agreed with Tom Gibson's suggestion that the city's attorney review the TIF request.  In general, they responded favorably to Welk's plans, with Ron Draper adding that there still were some concerns among community members.

After keeping things close to the vest, Welk said he was now prepared to answer any and all questions about the project.  The possibility of having a public meeting in late October was discussed but no definite date was set.