KIMBALL - Dozens of investors saw a huge project come to fruition on Nov. 1 as they celebrated the ribbon cutting for the rehabilitation of the state-owned rail line between Mitchell and Chamberlain and the grand opening of the Gavilon Liberty Grain facility.
About 200 residents, farmers and others attended the event at Liberty Grain, about six miles east of Kimball.
"This is an opportunity for community development," said Chuck Jepson, Liberty Grain LLC, of the railroad. "First we had the interstate, now we have a first-class railroad. We can pick that up now and run with it and develop it."
Liberty Grain began running rail cars in September. The rail line had not supported regular service since the mid-1990s.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., helped gain funding to support the railroad rehabilitation project through a $16 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. Johnson spoke during the event on Nov. 1.
The grant was one of 42 awarded in the country, he said, for which more than 1,000 applications were received. With other state and federal funding, the entire rail project cost $28 million.
"It's projects like this that show how important these projects are," Johnson said. "This project directly employed 95 to 125 workers and benefitted local economies and provided jobs. It is essential to the rural economy."
Johnson added that shipping prices, fuel costs and stress on area roads will be reduced because of the rehabilitated rail line.
"This is a project where good government meets private industry," Jepson said.
Liberty Grain is just the start of introducing more jobs for the rural economy.
"Rural infrastructure and the grain terminal add value to our farmer's products," Johnson said. "We need sufficient infrastructure in place to handle large future harvests."
Gov. Dennis Daugaard also spoke at the event. He said three things were necessary to make both the rehabilitated rail line and the Liberty Grain facility possible.
"It has to make dollars-and-cents sense... it has to be economically feasible... and it has to be environmentally sound," he said.
He said the communities and producers along the 61-mile rail line have shown support for both projects.
"Nothing happens if you don't care about and support the project," Daugaard said. "And the support and patience has been great."
Johnson acknowledged that Liberty Grain recognized the benefits of the rehabilitated rail line prior to building its facility. He said Gavilon Liberty Grain committed $30 million to build the terminal, which employs more than 300 people and will provide more jobs later on.
Jepson said Liberty Grain will be the first project of many that will bring good-paying jobs to the area. He asked parents to encourage their children to consider careers in agriculture.
"We need employees," he said. "And it's not just sweeping bins."
Jobs at Liberty Grain include working with computers, merchandising and management. With so many students leaving rural South Dakota for college and never coming back, Jespson said, there is now a serious need for those students to come home.
Darin Bergquist, state secretary of transportation, said both projects are laudable. To illustrate the magnitude of the rail rehabilitation project, Bergquist said it took 63,000 tons of rock, 96,000 ties, 800,000 railroad spikes and 80,000 rail plates to complete the project.
"Having Liberty Grain ready to take advantage of the rail like this is a real feat," he said. "This is as big a project as we get in South Dakota. It's an impressive accomplishment."