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Over and out, smokestack

St. Croix and Washington county emergency communications will be moved from the Xcel Energy "King Stack," shown in the distance, to a new communications tower to be erected in Houlton. RiverTown file photo

There's an elevator leading up the chimney at Xcel Energy's Allen S. King Generating Station outside Stillwater.

It's the preferred mode of transportation for St. Croix County emergency communications technicians when they go to service radio equipment tucked inside the 786-foot "King Stack," as it's known, along the St. Croix River.

But the elevator doesn't always work.

"Then he has to hoof it," said St. Croix County Emergency Support Services Director Steve T'Kach.

Come March, that particular hike will be a thing of the past when St. Croix County will move its western communications equipment from the iconic smokestack to a new tower in Houlton, where it will be joined by other agencies in a unique partnership.

Funds for the $745,000 tower project will be split among St. Croix County, Washington (Minn.) County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). All three entities use the current King Stack for transmissions, but will be abandoning the site amid expectations that it will no longer be producing coal at some point in the not-too-distant future.

"We do not believe its operational lifetime is as long as our operational lifetime," T'Kach said.

Also, "it's not an ideal environment to work" when it comes to servicing the communications equipment," he said.

"Therefore, the county has determined that it is in its best interest to build a new 330-foot self-support tower in Houlton, Wisconsin, to replace its presence on the King Stack," he said. "This new site will ensure the provision of two-way radio and paging coverage for first responders on and around the St. Croix River and into western St. Croix County."

T'Kach said the partnership should be mutually beneficial for more than just the St. Croix County and Minnesota agencies. In order to acquire land for the tower, he approached the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which said a free lease could be arranged — provided the Wisconsin State Patrol could also utilize the tower.

"So we said 'sure,'" T'Kach said, calling the arrangement "a perfect storm" of circumstances.

St. Croix County knew it had to get off the King Stack, a move that represents the final leg in emergency communications upgrade. That timing coincided with MnDOT's lease ending at Xcel's King Stack. So with MnDOT looking for a new home for its equipment and knowing Washington County would go where the state agency went, "everything kind of came together" with the Houlton tower, T'Kach said.

MnDOT will pay $300,000 toward the project, with Washington County chipping in $100,000 for a pre-paid lease. St. Croix County pays $345,000 as part of the arrangement.

"It's unique for us in the sense that we now have a tower with other governmental agencies that helped pay for it," T'Kach said.

He said the new tower will be among the final pieces to complete the county's communications upgrade that began in 2013-14. He said the new Houlton tower will improve coverage for tones sent out for first responders living in the nearby town of St. Joseph and for officers patrolling the St. Croix River.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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