Corn plant sweetens Red River Valley economy

North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1995  | July 1995 issue

Cheers echoed over much of the Red River Valley when ground was broken in May in Wahpeton for ProGold's high fructose corn sweetener plant.

The plant means 1,000 construction jobs through much of 1996 and 135 permanent jobs, and the plant's economic impact is projected somewhere around $300 million per year.

Wahpeton, located 55 miles south of Fargo, will spread its good fortune throughout the region. "Retail and services will feel the impact, not just for the next 18 months [during construction] but after that," says Ron Rowland, director of the Richland County Job Development Authority. Richland and neighboring Walker counties also have the highest percentage of growers contributing to the plant and to the economic expansion with their share of the plant's profits and stable prices for their corn. Rowland adds that many of the secondary jobs created by the plant will be with Fargo businesses.

However, initially the impact will be felt in Wahpeton, with a population of about 8,800. Many of the skilled construction workers will come from outside North Dakota, according to Mark Dillon, communications director for ProGold Limited Liability Co. "We need highly skilled workers like stainless steel welders, electricians who wire for electronic control," Dillon says, indicating that these are specialists not likely to be found in the area.

To house this influx of workers, Wahpeton has set aside city-owned land for two housing projects: a temporary, modular housing development that will house 420 construction workers and an RV park to accommodate the "modern-day nomads" working on the plant, says Mayor Dan Rood Jr.

The corn sweetener plant, Rowland says, will "feed upon itself." One of the main goals of Richland County, he says, is food processing. With sugar facilities in the valley, and the state mill and elevator producing flour to the north, and now the corn syrup plant, "we have all the ingredients produced here to go one step further," Rowland says. "There's no reason why we can't make cookies or candy." The plant, he says, "opens up a whole new index of people we can talk with. It's like going to the bookshelf and opening up a whole new volume."

The plant's byproducts will be available as feed for cattle and poultry and for use in pet food products, ProGold's Dillon says. And he wouldn't be surprised to receive inquiries from cattle feeders as well.

ProGold's plant is not all that's new in Richland County. Other large projects are overshadowed by the magnitude of the corn syrup plant, Rowland says. A new casino under construction in the southern corner of the county will employ 800; a new turkey farm, billed as the world's largest, is under development; and a $15 million plant that turns wheat straw into particle board will provide 40 to 50 immediate jobs, and will also give farmers a market for a product that normally just gets turned under.

Kathy Cobb