Predicting the future in Glenwood City
Months of divisive community debate over whether or not to permit a frac sand mine to be opened within a half mile of the public school triggered a recall election in Glenwood City on Dec. 17.
The mayor, who publicly characterized the race as a referendum on the sand mine issue, defeated challenger Ken Peterson 183 votes to 140 votes. In that same recall election, incumbent council member Nancy Hover defeated challenger Barb Standaert 163 votes to 160 votes; incumbent council member Dave Graese defeated challenger Chris Schone 162 votes to 160 votes. By a slim margin, the current administration survived intact.
Glenwood City has approximately 600 registered voters. The mayor’s race drew the most votes with 324. By comparison, the 2012 gubernatorial recall election drew 403 votes in Glenwood City and the 2012 presidential election drew 552 votes.
A decision crafted by a narrow majority that could very well impact the health, well being and prosperity of this community for the next 20-30 years is about to be realized. Glenwood City is struggling financially, like many small rural communities across the Midwest. No new single family homes have been built there since 2006. The public library has seen its budget cut by more than 50 percent in the last three years and is in danger of closing. A frac sand mine proposed by Vista Sand of Texas promises jobs and tax revenue for a community desperate for opportunity. With the next regular election four months away and rumors that at least one of the challengers from the recall is considering another run, the city council is expected to get the mine project rolling in short order.
Mine opponents react
The News spoke to community members including winners and losers of the recent election to get their take on the future of their town.
Julian Bender, a retired principal, was disappointed with the recall results.
“I was impressed with the turnout, but I was disappointed with the results. I got involved strictly from the standpoint of educating the public to help them make an informed decision as to whether they want to have a frac sind mine. We were trying to help them realize that this is a long-term situation, and you need to walk in with your eyes wide open. My personal opinion all along has been, the mine is too close to Downing. Two of the seats were close races while the mayor’s wasn’t as close. I don’t see it as a mandate. Maybe the results of the recall might give people on the council pause to say maybe we need to step back and look at this a little closer again. It has been a learning experience for everyone,” Bender said.
Schone was born and raised in Glenwood City. His history there provides him with a uniquely intimate understanding of this community.
“When this first started, my wife and I looked at each other and I asked, ‘Are we going to get involved?’ We did a lot research and reading and ended up asking ourselves, ‘How will we be able to wake up every day and live here knowing we didn’t do anything about it, for or against it?’” Schone said.
Schone felt strongly enough about the issues to run in the recall election against council member Graese.
“I’m truly surprised (by the results). We have 600 registered voters and only half of them showed up to vote and that half was split. I know of a lot of people who spoke to me personally who are totally against the mine and yet they didn’t take time to vote. It’s very unfortunate. This was a chance to have their voices heard. I was surprised it wasn’t a wider spread either way. It shows the people in the area are definitely split,” Schone said.
Schone felt the issues were more pervasive than just the sand mine.
“The mine was not my sole purpose for running. There have been multiple issues going on for years. The sand issue really highlighted them for the public. The constituents have not been heard, their voices have not been taken seriously,” Schone said.
Although the sand mine wasn’t the sole issue for Schone, he recognized it was the one likely to have the biggest consequences.
“In the mayor’s mind and others on the council, if any of them were wavering, they now know that it’s equally split or that people don’t care strongly one way or the other. There’s no reason they wouldn’t go forward with the mine now. I don’t think people understood how big of a decision this was, how this will affect them in the next months and years. It’s huge. For 95 percent of the population here, their biggest investment is their home. To not consider property value loss and resale ability, that should have been an eye opener. I hope and pray that they are ready to live with the consequences of their decision. I guarantee change is coming,” Schone said.
Schone believes there’s more at stake than just the future of Glenwood City.
“This isn’t just about Glenwood City. It is about St. Croix County. It is about sand mining in the whole western side of the state,” Schone said.
“I feel I have done my due diligence. I’m going to leave it in God’s hands and whatever happens, happens,” Schone said.
Jim Laskin, owner of The Cafe in downtown Glenwood City, became a public voice for opponents of the mine early on in the debate.
“Obviously I was a little taken aback. Low and behold, really with a very good turnout, we live in a town that is evenly divided and I guess I did not appreciate that,” Laskin said.
Laskin acknowledges need played a role in the outcome of the election.
“In the process of going around town for this campaign and others, I have been powerfully struck by the level of poverty in Glenwood City. That’s part of our reality too. Hold out any kind of promise for prosperity and there’s an awful lot of eyes that light up,” Laskin said.
Laskin concedes proponents of the mine won, but that the town remains divided.
“The current administration won by the slimmest of margins, but they won and that’s all that matters,” Laskin said. “However, you do not have a mandate when you win by 1 percent. What you have is a town that is evenly divided. But everybody understood going in, if they won, you have a mine.”
Laskin’s not optimistic about the city’s future.
“The terms Vista showed the mayor six months ago were dreadful,” Laskin said. “I suspect they will be the same terms that they show them again. We can only hope the council does a reasonable job of negotiating the terms. Maybe a miracle will take place and the proponents will turn out to be right and it will turn out to be not particularly bad and a big boost to the economy. But one fears that in fact, the naysayers will turn out to have known what they were talking about. We’ll see how this all turns out. Come back in two years and see how things are going.”
Laskin thinks, as difficult as it may be to move on, it’s time.
“After two and a half years, it’s done now and the people got their vote and they made the decision they made. We move on. At some point, this community has got to start to heal as best it can,” Laskin said.
Graese has served on the Glenwood City Council for multiple terms. He defeated challenger Schone by two votes in the recall election. He feels the people have spoken and he and the rest of the council now have the support they need to make a frac sand mine a reality in Glenwood City.
“I won by two votes and that’s all that matters. I feel very confident I have the support of the city. I’m very happy with the election. I think it is a mandate that we can start now to get a tentative mining agreement with Vista Sand. This is what I have wanted since we started this whole thing, to take all the rumors and lies and put those to rest. We can show people the benefits of a mine and what we are going to make Vista do. Here is exactly what we can get from Vista, here is what Vista is going to have to do in order to put a sand mine next to Glenwood City,” Graese said.
Graese admits the revenue and jobs a mine could provide is an attractive incentive, but not more important than residents health and managing a mining operation properly.
“The revenue is part of it and the jobs are very important. A mine will improve the economy of the city. But it’s not totally about money for me. I have ideas on how I want the mine run. I want to know Vista will live by our rules. If they won’t do that, I’ll vote against the mine. The council feels the same way,” Graese said.
Graese is excited to get the mine project underway.
“I want to get this going. We’re not rushing into anything. We’ve been playing with this thing for a year. Now we sit down with Vista. They will probably have concerns about our ordinance and want variances from it. They’ll have to present that to us. Then we’ll sit down and say ‘OK, we want this, this and this of you to make it safe for the general public,’ and we’ll go from there. If we can come to an agreement, I will vote for annexation,” Graese said.
Graese wanted to make it clear, nothing is currently in place with Vista Sand.
“We do not have any agreement with Vista. Nothing is signed. We haven’t agreed to a thing. Maybe the mining agreement will be more work than I think it will be because I know Vista will have profitability in their mind. I’m concerned about safety. They need to convince me there are no health hazards, and traffic and water safety is to my satisfaction. I am pro-development of Glenwood for benefits. This can be done right,” Gaese said.
Graese is confident the council will be able to involve citizens in the process of establishing a mine.
“My intentions would be to invite the school, the Village of Downing and the Town of Glenwood to any meeting we feel they have a chance to provide input into because it concerns the whole area,” Graese said.
In the end, Graese believes the majority of citizens will be satisfied — even opponents of the mine.
“Most of the people who are against the sand mine will take the consequences and they’ve said it — If we don’t get what we want, we’ll just have to live with what goes on. I think in the end we can make 90 percent of the people happy,” Graese said.
Vista Sand statement
Anders Helquist, attorney for Vista Sand, issued this statement on behalf of Vista following the election.
“We hope the City will consider annexing the project site and working with Vista Sand to create an environmentally sound mine that provides long-term jobs and revenue growth for the city. As always, Vista Sand continues to have an open door to listen to community questions and address their concerns regarding this project.”