Chippewa Falls is well known for its business innovation. Long before Seymour Cray, Jr., came to town, entrepreneurs started budding companies that eventually grew into mature industries that employ hundreds to this day.
Want some examples? Think Pactiv, on West River Road, which at one time was known as Chippewa Plastics and then Amoco Foam. Did you know a local businessman started this company and built it from the ground up before selling it?
Think Spectrum Industries. If you ever learned to use a computer in school, chances are the computer you learned on was sitting on a desk manufactured by this Chippewa Falls firm.
Or how about WS Darley and Co.? While Darley is headquartered out of Melrose Park, Ill., it has done a great deal of its engineering and manufacturing work in Chippewa Falls for decades.
And of course one can’t forget Seymour Cray, Jr. The genius, known as the father of the supercomputer, grew up in Chippewa Falls and eventually returned to set up shop to build machines that changed the world. At the height of its prowess, Cray Research employed 2,500 folks in the Chippewa Valley.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how different our community might have been if these good, solid corporate citizens had never been given a chance to flourish in our community.
What if protesters had objected to the use of plastics in making foam cups to hold coffee, or foam plates to hold hot dogs at a picnic?
What if a small group of folks said exhaust from trucks shipping Spectrum computer desks would lead to cancer and death?
What if the city council was besieged weekly by a handful of people upset that Cray used certain heavy metals in manufacturing its world class computers?
Where would we, as a community, be right now if all those businesses had been chased away?
Like most of you, I am glad to live and work in Chippewa Falls. It provides a wonderful mix of urban and rural life, where one still can meet the mayor walking down the street and get to know your children’s teachers by first name. It’s a city where you can be at your place of work one moment, and enjoying Lake Wissota in your boat a half hour later.
At the same time, Chippewa Falls does not exist in a vacuum. We must have a positive expectation that we welcome business to the community, because it brings something we need and want: jobs, money (in the form of a payroll), and hopefully, stability.
In recent months, the community has been embroiled in controversy over a facility for Canadian Sand and Proppants. By now, everyone knows what is involved — mining of special “frac” sand in the town of Howard, trucking it to a plant on the north side of Chippewa so it can be washed, and then transporting it by rail to Canada.
I’ve listened carefully to arguments made by both sides of this issue. There are those who favor allowing this business to operate, because it has successfully negotiated all the hurdles set by government. And there are those who continue to question whether it creates health or safety concerns for the community.
At the end of the day, unless someone has specific evidence proving that this operation will produce harm, it must be allowed to operate. And the evidence must be clear and convincing, rather than speculative.
Over the years, a number of issues have caused similar controversies. One of the first I covered as a reporter had to do with construction of a power line from a generating plant in North Dakota to the ultimate users, west of the Twin Cities. Opponents made a number of specious claims about the harm the power line would inflict on those who lived nearby; some of the claims were pretty incredible.
In the end, none proved credible. The line was built, it continues to serve the public to this day, and life went on.
A more recent and closer example is the mine along the Flambeau River near Ladysmith. For years, those opposed to it made all kinds of claims of how mining so close to the river would kill the river, the fish within it and other wildlife that lived along it. The water, opponents said, would be unusable for human or animal consumption.
The Wisconsin DNR assured the public that the process would be closely monitored and the mining company would be held to high standards.
The mining permit was issued, the operation was closely monitored and ore was removed. Later, the land was restored, and the last I heard, there are still plenty of fish and vegetation in the Flambeau. Claims that mining couldn’t co-exist with human life proved to be greatly exaggerated.
Now, to our own situation. Chippewa County has more than 50 sand and gravel pits operating right now. These pits have been in use as long as European settlers have been here. Few would argue that our quality of life has been diminished because of these pits.
In fact, the opposite argument could be made. Because of these sand and gravel pits, we’ve been able to build quality roads and buildings to enhance our collective lives.
As to the argument that sand trucks will pollute the air, we have thousands of vehicles that use our roads every day. Go outside and sit alongside Highway 124 or Highway 53 or Highway 29 and watch. You can find beer trucks, utility vehicles, grain trucks, cattle trucks, pickup trucks, cars, school buses, motorcycles and semis hauling huge logs.
That’s the nature of our country — free enterprise allows for the free exchange of goods, services and travelers. We can go where we want, when we want. There is no law preventing use of roads because you haul beer or wood or building materials. We can’t expect a company hauling sand to be excluded when other legitimate business is free to operate.
Businesses exist to fill a demand, and make a profit. They must respects standards set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. From everything I’ve read, this operation has passed the standards with flying colors. While I understand those who don’t want the plant operating in their “back yard,” that’s never a reason to stand in the way of a legitimate business operation.
Digging sand out of the ground, transporting it to a cleaning facility, and sending it overseas is no crime. If a group of investors takes the risk of building a multi-million dollar operation in hopes of making a profit, that’s the American dream.
Businesses are having a tough time today. Revenue is down for most companies due to the worldwide economic slowdown. Many have been laying off workers. Look at the Herald’s front page last Thursday — our jobless rate has almost doubled in one year, to nearly 11 percent.
As a society, we can’t expect to ride in cars, consume gasoline, wear leather shoes and drink out of plastic water bottles and then demand that none of those items be made in our corner of the world. Oil companies are going to use frac sand whether they get it from Chippewa Falls or Fremont, Neb.
The concern I’m now hearing from other business owners and managers around town is the ongoing opposition is causing residual damage to our community. Other businesses that once looked at Chippewa Falls as a possible place to locate are thinking twice. How are we serving our greater community when we chase legitimate businesses away?
Mark Baker is publisher of Chippewa Valley Newspapers. He can be reached at mark.baker @lee.net.