Murphy Oil USA Inc.â€™s $6 billion refinery expansion is slipping through Superiorâ€™s fingers.
On top of that, the cityâ€™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.
â€œWe havenâ€™t lost anything we didnâ€™t gain,â€ he said. â€œThe thing people tend to forget is that government doesnâ€™t create jobs or economic investments. Our job is to get out of the way.â€
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 Murphyâ€™s Superior refinery.
â€œThe worldâ€™s changed dramatically since when we first talked about it,â€ he said. â€œPrices are under $40 a barrel now, when two years ago, they were over $100 a barrel. Demandâ€™s decreased, prices have to support investment, and itâ€™s just not something thatâ€™s going to happen in todayâ€™s climate.â€
Murphy has not yet found a partner to back the project, Podratz said, and that pool of possibilities keeps getting shallower.
â€œIâ€™ve given up trying to determine which way the market is heading,â€ he said. â€œConsidering the political things happening, the environment in the Middle East and the economy, itâ€™s just not a good time to talk about it.â€
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.
â€œThe one thing I know is that you canâ€™t use the same strategy in 600 cities,â€ Thompson said.
â€œEconomic 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.â€
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 cityâ€™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.
â€œItâ€™s true that cities and villages canâ€™t manage the economy,â€ he said. â€œBut itâ€™s about business retention, too. The sorts of comments I hear from members are, â€˜All things considered, weâ€™re managing.â€™
â€œYou have to maintain a diversified economic strategy to keep development coming.â€