- Associated Press - Friday, April 3, 2015

HUGOTON, Kan. (AP) - For Rebecca Degollado the steady stream of semi-tractor trailers along Main Street hauling milk, cattle and other agriculture products is a reminder this isn’t the same town in which she opened her business 13 years ago.

Back then her Ranchita Tex-Mex Restaurant was the only Mexican restaurant in town. Today there are four. Hugoton is about to become the home of a second grocery store and a three-story motel at the southeast end of town. A pharmacy will open down the street from Ranchita in a matter of days. Plus, there is the first 2G cellulosic ethanol plant about to go into full operation just west of town.

The landscape of this community is changing and that brings a smile to the face of Stevens County Economic Development Director Neil Gillespie. He has been working tirelessly to bring industry to the county for years.

Hugoton, located 90 miles southwest of Dodge City on U.S. 56, has had the good fortune of sitting on a great gas field that was discovered 88 years ago. However, after decades of extracting this natural resource, reservoir pressures began declining, according to Kansas Geological Survey. Heeding the warning back in the late 1990s, Gillespie and others went in search of other sources of revenue for the community.

“There are a lot of reasons we have been able to accomplish what we have. We were ready for opportunities,” Gillespie said. “There have been ups and downs as there is with everything.”

Meanwhile, in the past six years the hard work of selling the community to potential industries became a reality when Abengoa of Madrid, Spain, committed to building Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, the first commercial plant of its kind in the U.S. Abengoa received a $132.4 million loan guarantee and a $97 million grant through the Department of Energy to support construction of the Hugoton facility.The facility will create ethanol and the co-generation of electricity.

It’s a win-win for the community. Plus, about 200 area farmers will be paid $15 per ton for crop remains, providing an estimated $17 million per year of extra income for local farmers whose agricultural waste would otherwise have little or no value. The process uses the remains of irrigated corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and switch grass. None of the edible kernels of grain are used; it’s 100 percent plant fiber and does not negatively impact the food supply, said Thomas Robb, Abengoa’s manager of institutional relations.

“It’s harvested according to the NRCS guidelines,” said Robb. “We adhere to the number that stays on the field so we don’t have dust.”

Robb said drier conditions in this part of the world helped make it a prime location for such a plant. The residue needs to be dry when it’s baled.

Back in October the company held a ribbon cutting for the plant, attracting such dignitaries as the U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/1NrSGTC ) reports.

Since then the plant has been fine-tuning the process. Because it’s a new concept Robb said they are still working out any problems and they are not yet in full production. However, Robb says once at full capacity there will be 79 full-time employees and they will process 1,000 tons per day of biomass, most of which will be harvested within a 50-mile radius each year.

They estimate they could use 350,000 biomass bales annually, producing up to 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol and 21 megawatts of electricity.

On a recent morning former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris gave a tour of Hugoton’s up and coming industrial park on the southeast side of town. One thing he failed to mention was the name of the park.

“It’s the Sen. Steve Morris Industrial Park, to honor him for all the years he represented us,” says Gillespie. Also the land the park sits on was land he farmed for more than 20 years. Morris’ roots are set deep in the land. His grandfather Clifford Charles Morris came to western Kansas in 1907.

“Our farmstead is the only original farmstead still in operation in Stevens County,” Morris said.

Today on land that was once farmed, semi-tractor trailers are coming and going from the Kansas Dairy Ingredients facility hauling milk inside the stainless steel tankers for the plant that makes ingredients for cheese. The business diversifies the economy and adds to the tax base, Gillespie said.

The plant opened in the summer of 2013, and collects milk from dairies as far south as New Mexico. According to Mike Eshbaugh, plant manager, the milk is ultra-filtered and then is shipped to Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri, to customers who make cheese.

About 30 tankers come in and out of the plant each day, and it processes about 1.5 million pounds of milk a day. The plant operates 24/7 365 days of the year. Currently there are 40 full-time employees.

“Having the business might encourage more dairies in the area,” said Hugoton Mayor Jack Rowden.

Nearby Sam Bhakta, a motel owner from Liberal, is building a 56-room Best Western Plus which could open in June. According to Rowden, a 32,000-square-foot second grocery store is also being built on the southeast edge of town. And a new Dollar General is being built. The local Alco store was sold and is being remodeled into a farm and home store. There is a new crop insurance and seed company on Main Street. But that’s not all; any day now Hugoton Pharmacy will open at the corner of Main and Sixth streets, in the old Porter Building.

“It’s great to see a business going into a building that was empty,” said Rowden. “We’re glad to see all the development. There are a lot of positive things, and some growing pains, infrastructure had to be expanded for future growth.

To encourage the growth of small businesses, the city is offering a $5,000 matching grant in start-up money. It’s not a lot, admits Rowden, but it’s incentive for small businesses on Main Street or for someone who wants to open a home business.

“For someone looking at starting a small business, it is better than a stick in the eye,” said Rowden.

Degollado has owned her business for the past 13 years. It branched off from the original Ranchita Restaurant her grandparents David and Gloria Romero began in Ulysses.

“This is mine,” she says proudly as she carries out the noon special - a large ranchito - to the table. It’s a family specialty made up of a fried flour tortilla topped with beans, beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado slices, and sour cream. This is where she and her husband Miguel Degollado have raised their four children, who grew up waiting tables.

U.S. Census shows Stevens County’s population is about 6,000. The current city population is about 4,000, with one-third being Hispanic.

“We are seeing more Hispanic business on Main Street” Gillespie said, “reflecting that they are about a third of our population.”

Degollado says there was a real hustle and bustle when the Abengoa plant was being built. Her restaurant was filled with people from Spain and the eastern U.S. She had tables of eight or nine twice a day for lunch and dinner.

“It was crazier at the time,” Degollado said. “You knew they were in town.”

The boom lasted several years. Now that the Abengoa plant is completed and almost in operation, and Kansas Dairy Ingredients is in full swing, the building boom that Degollado experienced has slowed. But she sees a bustling community.

“Hugoton had good schools for our children, and it’s a nice place to raise our kids,” she said. “The (community) comes together whenever someone is in need. They are really supportive.”

Now community leaders are focused on making certain there is more housing for middle income families in the community. Morris said a lack of housing is what limits growth in rural areas.

“We received a moderate income housing grant with the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation,” Gillespie said. “It helps communities address moderate income housing issues. As a result of getting the grant it will provide incentive.” Currently there are two triplexes, one duplex and seven speculation homes being built.

“It’s an exciting time for our community,” Gillespie said. “With new construction and businesses we are looking forward to the new things it stimulates.

___

Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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