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Barnesville digs deep: Fiber, natural gas projects make city more attractive for businesses, workers

A boring machine is used to install natural gas line underground as they work on the project Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Barnesville. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 2
Tyler Meech of Arvig Communications prepares fiber optic cable to be pulled through pipes underground as they work on the project Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Barnesville. Dave Wallis / The Forum 2 / 2

Barnesville, Minn. - Turn down most any street here and you’ll see crews boring into the pavement.

They’re working on two projects that will bring natural gas and fiber optics to the community – something Karen Lauer, executive director of Barnesville’s Economic Development Authority, believes will make the city more attractive to new businesses.

“It really positions a small community like Barnesville to be cutting edge and competitive,” Lauer said.

The added infrastructure is also a boon for existing businesses.

For example, Agassiz Valley Grain, a grain-shuttle loading terminal, will be able to use natural gas to dry grain instead of liquid propane, said Dan Noreen, general manager.

“It’s cost-effective, a little safer product in general and a lot less hassle,” he said, referring to scheduling trucks to haul in propane.

At the end of last year, the Barnesville EDA did a detailed survey of business owners, and Lauer said many were concerned about energy costs.

“Even with the smaller businesses, it’s significant from a cost perspective, which affects their bottom line,” Lauer said.

“If we’re able to work with our businesses and they’re able to be more profitable, that’s beneficial to the entire community,” she added.

Greater Minnesota Gas, of Le Sueur, is building an intrastate natural gas pipeline from north of Hawley to north of Barnesville. Xcel Energy is building the remainder of the pipeline as well as an in-town distribution system. Lauer said the initial estimated cost for the project was $8 million, which the companies will bear.

The city signed a franchise agreement with Xcel to operate in the city. The company expects to be offering service by Oct. 31, said Mark Nisbet, principal manager for Xcel Energy.

So far, the company has seen a good conversion rate, Nisbet said. Customers will pay a $35 monthly surcharge for up to 15 years, he said.

The fiber to premise is being installed by Arvig, and will be done by the end of the year, Lauer said.

The city is the utility provider, and bonded to pay for the $4 million project. Switching to fiber will increase download speeds tenfold, to 100 MB, with no planned rate increases, Lauer said. It will also be used to transmit phone and cable TV signals.

Eric Newell, president of Stoneridge Software in Barnesville, said his employees dial into other companies’ systems to look at their servers and do custom software development. Employees quibbled over slow speeds at its former location on Front Street. Stoneridge’s new headquarters, completed in August, has fiber.

“It’s huge for the ability to attract businesses to the community,” Newell said. “No tech company is going to want to come with 10 MB.”

“The other thing we’re seeing a lot in Barnesville is folks who work from home,” Lauer said, such as engineers, architects and people providing customer support services. “So having that higher speed is pretty critical.”

Sherri Richards

Sherri Richards has worked for The Forum since 2002. She is the features and business editor, overseeing Variety, SheSays, Farmers' Forum, the daily Business pages and Saturday Business section.     Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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