Sioux Cityans are used to disappointment.
Disappointment first visited in 1862 when President Lincoln chose Omaha, not Sioux City, as the east-west link for a revolutionary, transcontinental railroad, giving Omaha “an economic leg up on every other city,” as historian James Potter put it. And though Sioux Cityans would prove a hardy lot, disappointment would return in the form of devastating floods and failing businesses. In recent decades, Sioux City has watched its sister city to the north, Sioux Falls, grow from half its size to nearly double of Sioux City, leaving us wondering what could’ve and should’ve been.
So perhaps it was not unexpected that the unrivaled promise of the Hyperion Energy Center would die a slow death, despite the optimistic dreams of many and the recalcitrant criticisms of a few. But it still hurts.
Many residents remember the electric, excitement-filled reception when the “Gorilla" project finally was unveiled in Elk Point on June 16, 2007. Attendees were awestruck by the size and scope of the preliminary plans for the Hyperion Energy Center, the first oil refinery to be built since 1976. The following day, the editorial board of the Sioux City Journal called it “without a doubt the biggest, most far-reaching economic development project ever considered for Siouxland.”
The potential economic impact of the project was mind-boggling. Executives from Hyperion reported the project expected to generate $13.7 BILLION in annual economic activity. At its peak, nearly 10,000 people would be hired during four years of construction. Once up and running, the project now known by its acronym “HEC” would employ more than 1,800 full-time workers, with wages and benefits well above the median. At one presentation, a renowned economist projected more than 14,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created, noting it was one of the largest private investment projects in American history. Whispers of “wow” and “unbelieveable” swept through the auditorium.
Awed by the promise of economic growth beyond our dreams, residents envisioned a chicken in every pot and streets of gold in every surrounding town. The potential for decreasing our reliance on foreign oil from dictators was also appealing, as were property taxes for schools and the commitment to an energy center with emissions far less than existing refineries. Even the name created buzz and excitement, given that Hyperion was the “Titan God of Light, son of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Gaia).” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
Given its potential, I was an early supporter of Hyperion, founding Citizens for Hyperion and pulling together an enthusiastic board of community leaders and supporters. Friends gave time and money to the cause, with no apologies and only the promise of an unprecedented job creator for the tri-state area. I also helped manage the campaign for the rezoning referendum, and we were delighted when it passed in 2008 with 58 percent support. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the high-water mark for the HEC.
You don’t hear much about Hyperion anymore.
Every one in a while, there’s an article in the newspaper, like the one last week about the South Dakota Supreme Court affirming the air permit. Reading the article, you’d think the project was finally about to break ground, with streets of gold to follow. An executive from Hyperion Refining was quoted as saying they were still “moving forward.”
But most of their early supporters have moved on, including yours truly. A few weeks ago, I exchanged opinions with another early cheerleader and member of Citizens for Hyperion. I gave odds on the project at “about 50-1,” noting the options have expired on the zoned land and there’s no crude oil delivery source. My friend was even less optimistic. “It’s all over but the crying,” he said.
Surprisingly, neither of us blamed the misguided environmental activists who love to be quoted by the media for the “death” of Hyperion. Sure, the lawsuits and loud intransigence didn’t help, but even without it, it’s doubtful the project would’ve ever gotten off the ground.
Among other things, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for the project among industry leaders. Large-scale investors didn’t really get on board and even Hyperion Refining never seemed to dedicate the time and resources necessary. Maybe the economic downturn was to blame. I don’t know.
It’s a disappointment. But life is like that sometimes. We’ll just have to live with it.
Brent Hoffman is a former military officer and Pentagon 9/11 survivor. He served on the City Council in Sioux City and is the owner of Hoffman & Associates. He’s also the author of “Life After,” a biography of his late wife, Mary Jo. He is the father of two children, Silas and Lydia.