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For towns along Line 3, pipeline workers brought a welcome boom – while it lasted

By on October 17, 2021 0

On a recent weekday the main street in town was quiet. A few cars were parked in front of the post office and around the corner of the meat market.

In the kitchen of the Corner Store and Restaurant on Highway 371, cooks fill plates with fried eggs and hash browns for a handful of diners.

It’s a very different scene from earlier this year, at the height of Line 3 pipeline construction, when hundreds of pipeline workers lived and worked in the area.

Corner Store owner Dave Sheley said they would start showing up at his convenience store at 5 a.m. to stock up on food for the workday.

“Sometimes people would line up to the cooler,” he recalls.

Sheley had to open earlier and add staff to help with the morning rush. He installed a second coffee maker and a heated display case for the sandwiches.

Keeping up with the rush was a challenge, Sheley said. But after two pandemic-related restaurant closures, he said the pipeline workers were a “godsend” that came just at the right time.

“It was sometimes hard for us,” he said. “But in general it was like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ Because we would have really suffered there for a while without it. “

Now that Line 3 is in service and most of the pipeline workers are gone, Sheley said he has reduced staffing and food orders – and expectations for the future.

“You look at our sales this year. … We are not going to expect that this coming year, ”he said. “Anyone who thinks he will, I think, is probably a little misguided. “

No more traffic jams

For the past year or so, this small Cass County town of around 250 residents was a hub for the Line 3 project. A staging area on the outskirts of town buzzed daily with trucks, laborers and workers. ‘equipment.

All this activity sometimes caused traffic jams in the quiet streets of Backus. It also gave local businesses a boost, as all of those workers stayed in motels, ate in restaurants, and stocked up on supplies at local hardware stores.

At the peak of construction, more than 4,000 workers were involved in the Line 3 project. About 700 workers remain, Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said. The pipeline began operating on October 1.

This short-term boom in activity is normal for a pipeline project, said Louis Johnston, professor of economics at St. Benedict’s College and the University of St. John’s.

During construction, local communities see a wide variety of benefits, Johnston said, including work crews spending their money in town and buying the supplies they need.

“Once it’s built, it just transports crude oil through an area,” he said. “Unless there is maintenance to be done, the local area will not notice its effects.”

Enbridge said communities along the Line 3 corridor will benefit from millions of dollars in increased property tax revenues.

The Canadian company has also invested in community and non-profit initiatives, totaling $ 1.4 million last year, as well as an additional $ 3 million in grants for environmental restoration efforts. and habitat in the area, Kellner said.

While the large influx of Line 3 workers may be over, the timing – right after the COVID-related shutdown – may have saved some struggling businesses, said Mike Paulus, executive director of the Cass County Economic Development Corp.

“We may never know how many businesses were on the verge of going out of business after a historically difficult time and were rescued,” Paulus said.

‘As a part of your family was leaving’

It is not only the restaurants that have seen their activity increase. Line 3 workers frequently came to B&L Automotive in downtown Backus for oil changes and repairs on their personal and business vehicles, co-owner LeAnne Pollock said.

After construction of the pipeline ended a few weeks ago, most of these workers have left town, leaving a steady stream of local customers.

“They kept us busy. They were great people,” Pollock said. “It was sad to see them all leave.”

At the Backus Locker, a butcher and meat processing store, co-owner Janis Schmid would lay out beef jerky on a tray to load into the smokehouse. Schmid said his retail store has seen an increase in the number of Line 3 customers, as have other local businesses.

“It was a great way to get by after the pandemic,” Schmid said. ” Because the [were] people around and they were buying local produce in their areas where they worked so that helped everyone.

Schmid said she and her husband David were already working six days a week, so it was difficult to extend their hours to accommodate the schedules of pipeline workers.

She said they hired two women – a wife and girlfriend of pipeline workers – who were looking for work. They left when the project was completed, Schmid said.

“It’s like part of your family is leaving,” she said.

The temporary nature of the surge did not surprise most residents of Backus, said Blair Ecker, pastor of Pine Mountain Gospel Church. It is located in the old primary school of the city, with a Christian school and a thrift store.

“It was totally expected,” he said. “It was going to be a boom while they were here, and then they were leaving.”

With stories of oil towns in North Dakota in mind, Ecker said he was a little worried that so many pipeline workers were flocking to Quiet Backus.

But for the most part, Ecker said the influx of workers was a positive experience. They were friendly and didn’t cause any problems, he said. A project manager regularly attended Ecker church with his wife, until last week.

“We always teased them saying that they would end up becoming residents of Backus,” Ecker said with a laugh. “They did not do it.”

Financial gains and housing challenges

Ecker said some city residents have secured temporary jobs on the Line 3 project, either working on the pipeline itself or in supporting roles, such as security or as COVID testers. 19.

And his church benefited indirectly from Line 3: A few parishioners who owned property along the pipeline corridor profited by leasing it to Enbridge. They donated more money to the church, which was able to pay off its construction debt.

But Ecker said that aside from some local business owners, most people here weren’t really affected financially by Line 3.

“Individually, I haven’t seen an influx of personal income with the pipeline being here. And I think I’m the majority of Backus residents. ” he said. “I was happy for those who did.”

Line 3 posed some challenges, Ecker said. The influx of large numbers of workers looking for housing has put a strain on rental housing in Backus, where poverty and housing precariousness are already problems.

It was also controversial and the target of protests from environmental activists, Native American tribes and others opposed to the project.

A few of these protests took place in Backus, sparking increased law enforcement activity and curious interest from residents, Ecker said.

“It was a traffic jam every time there was a protest – whenever someone chained to something – because everyone wanted to see,” he said.

In a log cabin office in a corner of downtown Backus, real estate agent Mark Tietjen got a close look at the activity created by the Line 3 project.

“At all hours of the day, it was this constant flow of traffic,” said Tietjen, office manager at Rusty’s Up North Realty.

The flood of workers needed housing, and Tietjen said he had received hundreds of calls from people looking for housing to rent.

“I’m surprised they all found rentals,” he said. “It’s such a small town, but somehow they made it.”

Some local residents have rented their lakeside cabins or extra rooms to pipeline workers – not just in Backus, but other nearby communities such as Hackensack, Pine River and Walker.

Tietjen only received one call from a worker who wanted to buy a house. But he hopes some of the workers may have liked the woods and lakes region so much that they will one day come back and buy a house or a cabin.

There is another trend that could have a longer economic impact on the region. Since COVID-19, more and more people are moving north to homes or cabins and working remotely, Tietjen said.

Unlike pipeline workers who move on to the next job, these newcomers seem to be here to stay.

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