In Pine Island, concern over oft-delayed Elk Run biotech project

Pine Island residents
Francis Kelly, 63, left front; Al Trelstad, 75, right front, and other longtime Pine Island residents gather for breakfast and daily politicking at Dominic's Pizzeria in downtown Pine Island. The Elk Run project has prompted debates and discussions for four years now. But only recently has there been activity on the site as crews prepped the ground for spring construction.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Just about every day, members of Pine Island's establishment, most raised in the deep farming tradition that once made the town the cheese capital of Minnesota, gather for breakfast and daily politicking.

Of late, a frequent topic of conversation has been the sprawling bio-business project called Elk Run, a cluster of biotech businesses expected to more than double the size of the city and attract hundreds of new jobs.

The project has been hit with delays and sparked concerns from critics, including residents who worry it'll divide the city in two.

"It's going to be old Pine Island and new Pine Island if it goes through," said 63-year-old Francis Kelly, who has lived and farmed in the area for 40 years.

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Like many of his neighbors, Kelly believes the Elk Run project will divide the town by shifting the emphasis from its traditional downtown district to the proposed project site five miles south.

"It went out of town too far," he said. "There's too big a gap. You know, it would have been okay if it had been a 3-mile radius. I would like to see them develop closer to town."

For years, the Elk Run project has prompted such debates and discussions. But the site only recently became active, as crews prepped the ground for spring construction.

Geoff Griffin, the Elk Run project manager, said the delays have been a result of a very complex project with many parties involved, among them the state of Minnesota, Olmsted County and the city. The state departments of Employment and Economic Development and transportation also have played large roles.

"It was a lot of coordinating with everyone involved to put this all together, all the documents needed and move forward," Griffin said.

Charles Gorman
Charles Gorman, 60, owns the only meat shop in Pine Island, Minn. He welcomes the construction delays and believes the longer it takes the project to get started, the longer residents will keep coming to his shop on Main Street.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

He said construction of a more than 50,000-square-foot building will begin in March, after winter. Drivers can now see the outline of the building just east of Hwy 52.

"Just last week, we had another crew come in and bed down with stray and hay the footing area so we're ready for winter," Griffin said.

Backers of the project believe it could turn the region into a national center for research into new drugs, medical devices and other breakthroughs.

But the delays have raised questions, even among the most optimistic supporters.

No one knows these concerns better than City Administrator Abraham Algadi. He said many residents have legitimate concerns about the scope of the project, its timeline and the impact it could have on the city.

But Algadi said city officials are doing everything they can to keep the community informed and minimize any adverse impacts.

"Are you going to make everybody happy? I don't think I get up every morning with that as being my goal," Algadi said. "My goal is to do my job to the best of my understanding as the council interprets that job for me. If at the end of the day that same council gets resoundingly re-elected, then we're doing something right."

Business owners like Charles Gorman remain skeptical about the project.

"There's just nothing you can see out there. There's just nothing there," said Gorman, who owns the town's only meat shop. "The delays are causing a lot of doubt with people. I think there were more supporters but now with all these delays a lot of people are having second thoughts about the projects."

But Gorman welcomes the construction delays. The way he sees it, the longer it takes the project to get started, the longer residents will keep coming to his shop on Main Street.

Others say the project is bound to be a boost to help Pine Island. Al Trelstad, 75, believes the project will keep his hometown from slowly withering away like other rural communities.

"Small towns around Rochester got to figure out what type of businesses will bring people here," Trelstad said. "Pine Island is the same thing."