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Wind turbine company rejects Northland

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A European wind firm looking to expand to the United States assured a team from Duluth last week that the Northland was still a leading contender among possible locations.

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"There's been no decision," Rob West, CEO of Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, said after the meeting at a national energy conference in Dallas. "They're still very much interested in Minnesota. We're still in the hunt."

But the day after the meeting, the wind turbine company's chairman was in Butte, Mont., telling officials that the company would build its first U.S. plant there.

Joachim Fuhrlander of German-based Fuhrlander, met with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Butte officials and visited the proposed site, seven miles west of Butte.

"Fuhrlander himself stated publicly, to the press, to the governor and to all our local officials that their first plant in the United States would be located in Butte," said Jim Smitham, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp.

Fuhrlander's relationship with Butte goes back several years. In 2008, Gov. Schweitzer announced Fuhrlander's plans to build a $25 million nacelle plant in Butte that would employ about 150 people. Nacelles are the tower-top units containing the generating components.

State incentives and plans for a wind farm development in the region led to the choice of Butte over other cities, news reports said. But because of the economic downturn, the plant was never built.

Fuhrlander's renewed commitment is a verbal one, Smitham said. "Whether it's this year or next year, we're not sure," he said of construction.

Sheila Doherty, a Fuhrlander spokeswoman, declined to explain the company's plans but said an announcement would be made in a week or two.

The announcement in Butte came as a surprise to West, who has been leading the charge to bring the company to the Northland. He and other business leaders had been told the site choice was down to the Northland and Ohio.

While West and other officials have been bound by a confidentiality agreement not to reveal the name of the company that could create up to 1,350 jobs in the Northland, Sen. Tom Bakk was under no such constraint when he talked about Fuhrlander last month in quoted comments.

"I know it's Fuhrlander," Bakk, DFL-Cook, said this week. "I wasn't aware there was an agreement signed not to disclose the name."

Besides being a state senator, Bakk is on the Iron Range Resources Board and sits on various economic development, mining and energy committees.

"So if something significant is going to happen with mining or energy, it would be pretty unusual for me not to know about," he said.

The Northland's proposal called for a blade plant in Hibbing or Grand Rapids, a nacelle plant in Duluth near the waterfront and a factory in Superior to build the towers.

Officials offered $10 million from the Iron Range Resources Board and a matching $10 million from the state's 21st Century Minerals fund as incentive if certain jobs and other criteria were met, Bakk said.

Meanwhile, Montana is offering Fuhrlander millions for infrastructure improvements with an additional $500,000 in regional mining money, news reports say.

Smitham said Fuhrlander officials left the American Wind Energy Association conference last week in Dallas optimistic about the U.S. market for wind energy, saying the U.S. market was "exploding."

"They saw great opportunities in the U.S. market," Smitham said. " But what they want to do is have some orders for turbines in hand, so when they start construction of a facility, they have some orders to be processed."

Their comments also left hope for the Northland.

"They hinted that after their first plant, there may be other plants built in other locations in the U.S," Smitham, said.

But West, convinced that the Northland has the access to transportation, the quality work force and the experience building and handling big equipment that wind turbine manufacturers need, isn't biding his time. His agency is already talking with four other wind turbine makers about locating in the Northland, he said.

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