Influx of Line 3 pipeline workers spurs post COVID-19 growth in Backus area
The thousands of workers in the area for pipeline construction have helped many surrounding businesses in a difficult time.
Not all agree with the construction of Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline between Backus and Pine River, but it's undeniable that the flood of workers that came for the project have provided an economic boost to the businesses closest to the operation.
There was a shortage of short-term housing before the arrival of the pipeline workers, so immediately upon arrival in 2020 those in the hospitality business who were able to pull strings and make extra room were quickly rewarded.
" It’s been a nice shot. It’s one of those things where you hang onto your hat and you get through and it’s been good."
— Dave, Sheley.
Tuck-A-Way Resort outside of Pine River had constant occupancy throughout the winter, an uncommon occurrence.
"In the winter we had occupancy in four cabins," said co-owner Todd Malecha. "That was way high as a number. Normally there would be only people in cabin 3 maybe two weekends of the winter. Cabin 6 would have one weekend and 8 and 9 would maybe have two to three weekends in the winter."
The additional occupancy lasted until spring. The resort has regulars who book the summer far in advance, so they maintained their loyalty to that customer base and only set aside one cabin for pipeline workers. But Malecha said their presence throughout the winter was a boon.
"It definitely had a good impact on us, and our plan is that after Labor Day weekend we'll switch back the cabins to be available for pipeline workers," Malecha said.
The boon from the presence of thousands of extra customers is especially stark for those businesses operating near work yards where all the workers gather, including the work yard on the south end of Backus. Just blocks away, B&L Automotive is so swamped with additional work that a normal three-day waiting line for some repairs has become a two-week wait, though tires, oil changes and some more humdrum work can be done much sooner. The shop was able to upgrade some equipment.
" Our numbers are way above pre-COVID. So even though we kind of took a year off. The natural growth we've seen over the past eight years, we're right back into that same growth pattern."
— Roger Hoplin.
"Between our locals and all the people that have moved here, (those who) came up to stay for the summer, and the pipeliners, we've been swamped," said co-owner LeAnne Pollock. "We did get a new a new hoist to lift heavier trucks. It's going well. I mean, we've been busy."
Pollock said one of the new 20,000-pound hoists replaced a smaller hoist that was due for replacement, but one of the new lifts was an expansion to the shop's capacity. The workers on the pipeline have brought the shop front end work, wheel alignments, motor work, transfer cases and lots of larger jobs.
For those businesses more directly hit by COVID-19 related closures, a significant increase in customer base has been a lifesaver. Dave Sheley, owner of the Backus Corner Store, was sent reeling by restrictions on his restaurant. But pipeline workers constantly flooded the store side for sandwiches and drinks during breakfast, lunch and dinner and, when allowed, takeout orders from the restaurant.
“It was a godsend because we were still in COVID when it started,” Sheley said. “Mornings in the store are just phenomenal.”
From 5:30-7 a.m. a nearly overwhelming swarm of workers stop in on their way to the job sites and pick up breakfasts, largely sandwiches. Demand for sandwiches were so high that Sheley early on added another warmer for sandwiches, opting to offer hot sandwiches during the summer in place of hand-dipped ice cream, which was put away when COVID-19 hit.
The influx has changed the way the store operates as well. In the past Sheley opened at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate early morning coffee drinkers, but now there is a long line already waiting well before then.
“Now you have to be ready to roll by 5,” Sheley said, noting gas, diesel and inside sales are all up.
Restaurant business is up to some degree for takeout orders in the morning.
“It’s been a very positive impact on my store,” Sheley said, estimating business is up overall at the store and restaurant by 30%.
Providing more customers than any one restaurant can serve, the impact of the pipeline workers has been felt at least 10 miles away where Roger Hoplin, owner of Bites Grill and Bar in Pine River, said their patronage helped the restaurant recover after COVID-19 related losses.
"Our numbers are way above pre-COVID," Hoplin said. "So even though we kind of took a year off, the natural growth we've seen over the past eight years, we're right back into that same growth pattern."
Overall, business owners in the area speak positively of the pipeline workers in the area.
"The impact has been really nice. The respect and kindness of those people has been amazing. They're just so polite. The way everybody gets so short-tempered with COVID and all that kind of stuff. It's just nice to have the kind of attitude that they're spreading around here. That part's nice," Hoplin said.
“It’s been a nice shot. It’s one of those things where you hang onto your hat and you get through and it’s been good,” Sheley said.
"It's helped us all the way around. It's helped the environment, our community," Pollock said. "It's helped everyone in several ways."