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Construction begins at plant

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GOODLAND -- Construction continued unabated in the background as dignitaries tossed ceremonial shovels-full of dirt into the gusty Kansas wind.

There was an unspoken sigh of relief as the shovels represent new life for an ethanol facility that has set empty and lifeless for nearly five years now, save for the single security guard housed in the ramshackle trailer at the front gate.

On Wednesday, two guards were on duty to check in visitors attending the second groundbreaking for what now is known as the New Goodland Energy Center.

A Michigan group, including former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, has purchased the ethanol plant and hired contractors to get it up and running.

The facility, designed to produce 40 million gallons of ethanol a year, is expected to begin test runs in late October before becoming fully operational near the end of the year.

The project, however, doesn't include other parts of the energy center, including the 22-megawatt coal-fired power plant that sits virtually next door to the ethanol facility. There's no plan to use the wind turbines either, even though they sit out back of the ethanol plant, nearly overgrown by weeds.

Nearly 80 percent of the ethanol plant already is complete, but that brings with it both opportunity and trouble, as engineers won't guarantee the plant's capacity because they weren't involved from the beginning.

Wednesday's rededication ceremony was all about making public Michigan's NextGen's intention to restore the ethanol plant and move ahead.

The event brought out a flurry of green jackets worn by Goodland Ambassadors, as well as a bevy of politicians, including Gov. Sam Brownback, already in the area for the announcement of a first-in-the-nation deal by McCarty Dairy near Rexford to serve as the sole supplier of milk for Dannon's yogurt factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

"It's a pleasure to be here," said Johnson, one of the owners of the NextGen group to buy part of what was the former Goodland Energy Center. "My partners and I have been looking for an ethanol plant for some time. And this is our first project."

"This project has been a long time coming," Brownback said of the plant getting started again. "I was out here with a prior group, and that didn't work out."

Brownback heralded renewable energy and said Kansas is first in the nation this year in terms of wind development, with nearly $3 billion expected to be invested.

"We're the beef state," he said. "We're the wheat state. We want to be the renewable state.

"Another thing I'm happy to see when we're here is capital investment in northwest Kansas, where we've been having population losses."

Johnson said his group came to Goodland simply because they had been looking at the possibility of building an ethanol plant. When the economy soured, however, they decided not to do that.

They then started looking at the possibility of purchasing an ethanol plant that was either in bankruptcy or foreclosure.

The Goodland site was neither, but it was owned by a bank, which passed along information.

"It took about two years to get financing lined up," Johnson said.

Eventually, he said, they anticipate having approximately 50 people working at the plant, most of whom will come from the Goodland area.

Johnson declined to provide specific details about the cost of the project, other than to say a number of banks will be involved and the amount is big.

"It's one of those things that when you sign the papers, your hand literally shakes," he said.