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Crookston leaders were surprised by Epitome Energy decision to move to Grand Forks

Epitome Energy had planned to build the plant in Crookston since January 2019. The company was undergoing the permitting process through the state of Minnesota.

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Epitome Energy CEO Dennis Egan speaks during a Grand Forks City Council meeting on Dec. 5. (Screenshot from meeting)
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CROOKSTON – The news that a $400 million agribusiness project is coming to Grand Forks came as a surprise to city leaders in Crookston, the city originally chosen for the location of the soybean crush plant.

On Monday, Dec. 5, Epitome Energy, a Red Wing, Minnesota-based agribusiness company, publicly announced plans to build a soybean crush plant northwest of Grand Forks. When fully operational, the Epitome facility will crush 42 million bushels of soybeans per year and create 50 to 60 new permanent jobs.

Since January 2019, Epitome Energy had planned to build the plant in Crookston . The company chose a site and was undergoing the permitting process through the state of Minnesota.

Up until Monday morning, say leaders in Crookston, Epitome still planned to build in Crookston, as far as they knew.

Crookston Mayor Dale Stainbrook said he received a call from Epitome Energy CEO Dennis Egan on Monday about the company’s plans to move to Grand Forks.

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“It wasn’t a good day,” Stainbrook said.

According to Egan, the change in plans came after waiting for 16 months for an air permit to be issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“With our investor pool, it became clear that without a path forward, we needed to look at an alternative site, and we think we have found that in Grand Forks,” he told the Herald ahead of his Monday announcement.

Stainbrook said he and others in the city were aware of the long wait time faced by Epitome during the permitting process.

“Epitome was continuing with their plans to build here, but it all boils down to the MPCA,” said Stainbrook. “I think in Minnesota, they’ve just got too much power.”

On Wednesday, the MPCA issued a statement saying the air permit for the project was expected to be issued early next year.

"Epitome Energy was a priority project and received significant staff attention during the last 15 months to ensure it had completed an environmental review and necessary permits to meet its 2025 schedule," said Andrea Cournoyer, the agency's interim director of communications. "Working in good faith with Epitome, the MPCA concluded its environmental review this summer and the air permit was expected to be issued in February 2023 so construction could begin this spring."

Egan could not be reached for comment prior to this publication’s deadline.

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Karie Kirschbaum, community development director at the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority, said she also learned of Egan’s plans to move Epitome Energy on Monday.

“It came as a surprise because the city has been working with Mr. Egan, but we can’t make something happen for him regarding the MPCA – they are the animal that they are,” she said. “Grand Forks has been very proactive and North Dakota has been very proactive in working with companies like this, so that part isn’t surprising.”

With Epitome Energy’s plans to build a plant in Crookston came state and local money to aid in development. In 2019, the city and the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority approved a $250,000 business loan for Epitome Energy. Kirschbaum said Egan returned the $250,000 to the city in the form of a check during their meeting.

The company also received a $1 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Minnesota Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, but only used $20,000 of the total. Johnson says Egan has plans to return that money to the state of Minnesota.

“Epitome doesn’t want to have that as an issue moving forward,” said Johnson.

Johnson and other local lawmakers were displeased to hear Epitome’s plans to move. He and Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, issued statements on Tuesday blaming the MPCA and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for Epitome’s decision to leave Minnesota.

In Grand Forks, Epitome Energy promises dozens of new permanent jobs with a payroll of approximately $5 million. Egan says the company could also support an additional 800 jobs in related industries like construction.

Crookston will miss out on those economic benefits, says Kirschbaum.

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Johnson says the project would have increased the tax base in Crookston and the rest of Polk County, which would have especially helped Crookston Public Schools, which is trying to pass a referendum for a new athletic facility.

“This would have been one of those projects that would have had a dramatic impact on property taxes for residents of Polk County,” said Johnson.

Epitome Energy leaves behind 90 acres in Crookston’s industrial park, said Kirschbaum.

“For any businesses that would like to look at Crookston to develop, any amount of that acreage is available, which it hasn’t been for a while,” she said.

Nearby, the Ag Innovation Campus, a Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council project, is under construction. When completed, the site is expected to crush around 2.5 million bushels of soybeans per year.

The MSRPC paid for part of Epitome Energy’s feasibility study, which the company ultimately used to choose Crookston as a site, said Tom Slunecka, Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council CEO, when reached by Agweek on Tuesday, Dec. 7. He said MSRPC initially partnered with Epitome Energy because it appeared the Ag Innovation Campus and the company had a lot in common.

“Since then, probably two years ago, due to COVID and finance issues largely related to COVID, we decided to continue on with our project without regard to Epitome. … We have been working in that direction for a couple of years knowing that if they were to come on it was going to be dramatically delayed,” Slunecka said.

Stainbrook hopes the open space and Ag Innovation Campus will draw businesses to Crookston in the future.

“I just don’t want the public out there to say that Crookston isn’t business friendly, because we are,” said Stainbrook. “We’re willing to work with anybody and everybody just to increase our tax base and increase our population.”

AgWeek's Ann Bailey contributed to this report.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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