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Superior weathers state’s economic storms

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

Murphy Oil USA Inc.’s $6 billion refinery expansion is slipping through Superior’s fingers.

On top of that, the city’s port-based economy, which annually moves about 22 million metric tons of coal, is bracing for the drop in shipments that could accompany tighter statewide regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet Superior Mayor Dave Ross said the city is thriving in the midst of the economic downturn.

“We haven’t lost anything we didn’t gain,” he said. “The thing people tend to forget is that government doesn’t create jobs or economic investments. Our job is to get out of the way.”

In the last 30 months, Superior took in more than $100 million in private investments, including multimillion-dollar manufacturing plants for companies such as Charter Films Inc.

But the Murphy project, which would have been one of the largest private developments in Wisconsin history, might not ever join the list of new investments, said Dave Podratz, manager of Murphy’s Superior refinery.

“The world’s changed dramatically since when we first talked about it,” he said. “Prices are under $40 a barrel now, when two years ago, they were over $100 a barrel. Demand’s decreased, prices have to support investment, and it’s just not something that’s going to happen in today’s climate.”

Murphy has not yet found a partner to back the project, Podratz said, and that pool of possibilities keeps getting shallower.

“I’ve given up trying to determine which way the market is heading,” he said. “Considering the political things happening, the environment in the Middle East and the economy, it’s just not a good time to talk about it.”

Ross said Superior will manage without the Murphy expansion.

It is a sign that Superior, so far, is one of the exceptions among Wisconsin cities experiencing historic declines in development and employment, said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. But he said it does not mean Superior has found a cure-all.

“The one thing I know is that you can’t use the same strategy in 600 cities,” Thompson said.

“Economic development is unique to an area, and Superior is able to benefit from its port facilities. You hear it all the time, but it really is about location, location, location.”

Superior historically catches the back end of economic downturns and takes longer to recover, Ross said. Though still far below federal and state levels, the city’s unemployment rate rose in the past month, he said.

Ross said Superior requested about $42 million in federal stimulus money for area projects.
If manufacturing companies and jobs keep going to Superior, the loss of a $6 billion project will not hurt too much, Thompson said.

“It’s true that cities and villages can’t manage the economy,” he said. “But it’s about business retention, too. The sorts of comments I hear from members are, ‘All things considered, we’re managing.’

“You have to maintain a diversified economic strategy to keep development coming.”

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