“There’s things that can come out of this that we can’t even foresee right now.”
– KIM TAYLOR, REEVE OF THE RM OF PEMBINA
Once there were elevators and brick factories here, but folks had all but given up hope of any commercial development returning to the tiny community of Darlingford.
So six spanking new hopper bins appearing on the rail line last year was something of a turnaround.
They represented the $300,000 station grounds built to service the new farmer-owned Boundary Trail Railway Company (BTRC).
It’s the first significant investment here in at least 20 years, says Kim Taylor reeve of the Rural Municipality of Pembina. It’s the kind of thing rural reeves definitely like to see. He’s not sure how much tax revenue this will ultimately generate in the years ahead. But it’s significant.
“It certainly increases the tax base. And not only that, but it’s the fact that this is generating economic activity in the local area. That’s the big thing.”
Last year, Pembina municipality turned over $400,000 in abandonment fees received from Canadian Pacific Railway for its portion of the rail line abandoned in a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is vote of support.
“There’s things that can come out of this that we can’t even foresee right now,” Taylor says.
MORE TO COME
The BTRC became the proud new owner last spring of 23 miles of track, formerly owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway between Morden and Binney corner, three miles west of Manitou. It also acquired 33 miles of abandoned right-of-way running beyond Binney through the Pembina Valley to Holmfield just east of Killarney.
The farmer-owned company has plans to build two more station grounds similar to Darlingford this year, including one at Manitou and the other at Binney.
They’ve stressed from the start that the wealth created through operating a railway has spinoff benefits to rural communities, Kevin Friesen, BTRC president and Manitou-area farmer told a Southwest Farm Women’s Ag Days seminar last week.
“Our real motive and our goal is to be a community-driven organization,” he said.
An economic impact study done in advance of purchasing the line showed a potential $5-million advantage, based on $1,000 saved per loaded producer car, at 500 cars shipped per annum.
“Every time a car leaves our track that’s $1,000 that stays at home,” said Friesen, adding that further cash spinoffs, from keeping wealth closer to home, jack the impact up an additional $3 million.
Travis Long was the economic development officer for the Town of Manitou before becoming the BTRC’s general manager.
He says the short line’s economic advantages, from a rural economic development perspective, were evident right away. For one, infrastructure built to service the line means expanding the tax base.
“That’s really important because most of these communities are having an erosion of their tax base. There aren’t a lot of institutional taxpayers around anymore. ”
This rest of it emerges from local wealth recapture, jobs created, and retaining key infrastructure for future growth.
“What we were thinking of a lot when we were trying to buy the line was the wind farm project north of here,” Long said. “Had the rail been removed 10 years ago, we’d have lost out. All that equipment was railed here and off-loaded at Manitou.”
But the BTRC has a long way to go before it’s a rural success story. Just six months into operations, their biggest challenge remains convincing more farmers of the advantages of loading producer cars, Friesen said.
They also continue to emphasize that the farmer-owned rail line is for all farmers needing to ship grain, not just BTRC shareholders.
Their pitch for more customers is based on the inevitable rise of freight rates, he said. “We need to keep this thing operational and liquid so we can keep competitive,” he said.
“Right now, our comparison between the two is you’re still making more money putting it in a rail car, even taking the little bit of time to load it and the wear and tear on your auger.”
“You’re still making money, plus you’re supporting your local area a lot more with more money in your pocket. ”