The bio-tech project just north of Rochester, commonly known as Elk Run, is beset with skepticism because private developers with sloppy business practices want public funds to make their investment viable. The key to the deal is a new interchange on Hwy 52 valued at $40 to $45 million.
A couple of months ago Geoffrey Griffin, Elk Run's project manager, was fined by the Department of Commerce for not having the right license on a land deal for Elk Run. A Pine Island business owner has publicly acknowledged he took a $10,000 payment to help influence others. There's no clear title to the property, as two banks, both of which are under federal scrutiny - one in Wisconsin and one in Oregon - apparently hold a title to the same section of Elk Run. General confusion reigns, and there's an accumulation of evidence that something is not right.
Who is going to step up and stop Mn/DOT from investing $40 to $45 million at Elk Run? Apparently not Deputy Commissioner Khani Sahebjam who flippantly told a Finance & Commerce reporter, "Unless something drastic happens, we are moving forward." When asked to define "drastic," he responded with a laugh: "I don't know what drastic is; if Mars hits Jupiter or something like that." (MnDOT selects Elk Run interchange developer, Sept. 2, 2010, Finance & Commerce)
If an interchange is built for economic reasons, then that interchange is a public subsidy to that business. The logic is dependent upon a solid business plan. Tower Investment's business plan is based on risk. The reward is a new interchange, making their initial investment worthwhile if the new interchange attracts other businesses to the development. Without the interchange, all Tower Investments has is an expensive piece of land with a dirt road leading to a couple of existing pole barns. Tower Investments has promised this development will bring hundreds of jobs, but there is no substance behind their claims. They are already years behind schedule. What evidence suggests that they will make good on their promises?
Given today's environment of scarce resources, shouldn't transportation planning rely on something more than wishful thinking? During the 2007-08 legislative sessions, I switched my vote from no to yes on increasing the gas tax. What changed my mind was that a bridge fell in Minneapolis. The bridge collapse refocused everyone's attention on the safety of our roads and bridges. I don't regret that vote because Cannon Falls has dangerous intersections. Cannon Falls has the only two stoplights on Hwy 52, and this intersection is in the top 100 most costly crash areas for the state. The city's bid for a new interchange lost out to Elk Run. Our pending economic development is a new Mayo hospital slated to be built in 2012. A hospital board member stated there could be an additional 25 jobs added to the current employee total. Cannon Falls has a documented safety issue and concrete development plans, yet we lost out on the chance to get a new interchange. It's a bitter pill to swallow to see lofty promises made in press releases driving our infrastructure development.
Mn/DOT should wait until Tower Investment's Elk Run follows through with some of its promises. Unfortunately for Mn/DOT, the Field of Dreams is not a real place. We can't simply build things in the hopes that a dream will follow.