Small towns, big boonPublished 12:55am Saturday, April 7, 2012
Wind farms bring more business and customers to surrounding communities
This story originally appeared in Progress 2012. Get a copy at the Austin Daily Herald.
The 253 wind turbines in Mower County aren’t just producing electricity, they’re energizing small towns by adding business.
While many people have long debated the merits of wind turbines and their effect on the skyline, many local business owners say they’re a welcomed addition.
Since the first Mower County wind towers were erected in 2002, area communities have seen a boost in business first from a wave of construction workers, then continued patronage from regular technicians.
“LeRoy did prosper big time with the towers,” said Lu Overocker, owner of Sweet’s Hotel.
To the delight of Overocker, wind farm technicians, specialists and executives have frequented her hotel, bar and restaurant since it opened in October of 2008. Technicians, and occasionally executives from High Prairie Wind Farm stay at the hotel regularly, and Overocker said it’s nice for them to have a familiar place to stay.
“We make them feel at home,” Overocker said. “These guys are on the road a lot. They feel comfortable here.”
Because many of the same workers frequent the hotel, Overocker said she has gotten to know them and their families well.
“You build kind of a bond with them,” she said.
In fact, Overocker said, she opened Sweet’s Hotel at the tail end of the construction projects in LeRoy, when workers were renting homes and bringing dollars to the community.
“The town really was busy before we got the hotel done,” she said.
For many regional small towns, the construction of the turbines was a boon.
Wind farm construction projects brought a surge of workers, and in turn, business to small towns. Construction of the Wapsipinicon Wind Project brought 100 to 200 workers to Dexter about two years ago, which Lake Geo Plaza Center owner Jon Shaw said was a significant boost.
But the benefits didn’t end with construction: About a dozen technicians based in Dexter now frequent the shop before servicing turbines. In Shaw’s words, they’re regulars.
“We see them every morning, noon and afternoon,” he said.
Most of the workers stopping at Lake Geo are from enXco, which has two projects in Mower County.
“They support the local community real well,” Shaw said. “They hired very good people.”
Shaw said all the help they can get is a benefit. With the economy struggling recently, Shaw said, it can be difficult to get customers in the door.
“(Having wind farms here) is like increasing the local community,” he said.
That local base is important, especially in the winter when there isn’t as much traffic on Interstate 90.
Woody’s in Rose Creek saw a definite boost when the turbines were built in the summer of 2010. Woody’s owner Joe Koffman described the wind farm workers as model customers.
“They were some of the best customers,” said Koffman, adding that the workers were always well-mannered. “They were all good about everything. We had good luck with them.”
Still, Woody’s was a bit more out of the way than other small-town establishments, so Koffman said they didn’t see quite the boost towns like LeRoy and Dexter did.
Koffman also said the bar and grill was overlooked at first because many technicians thought it was just a bar.
“There definitely was an increase when they found out we were here and were close,” he said.
Like many other business owners, Koffman said, he’d welcome another project.
“I hope they build some more by us,” he said.
Since the construction finished, Koffman said, they still see wind workers, but not as often or as many.
Along with support for local businesses, Riverland Community College wind technician program instructor Steve Vietor said wind farms have also increased the need for various parts and materials needed to maintain turbines.
“It’s created a lot of support industry in this area,” he said.
Along with the needs for different lubricants and safety and shipping equipment, Vietor said, wind farm companies do work locally.
“The trucks that they drive need to be purchased and serviced,” he said.
Michelle Berdusis, site manager for Vestas at Prairie Star Wind Farm, said the company uses local repair shops.
She said workers at her office frequent gas and food shops in Adams and LeRoy. She even said she tries to pick a local banquet hall to host events like Christmas parties. And because Berdusis said she hires technicians who live close by, they naturally have a vested interest in the surrounding communities.