ESCANABA - Local government officials took advantage of Congressman Dan Benishek's recent visit to Escanaba, using the time to discuss various issues facing Delta County. The question and answer session took place during the Joint Governmental Round Table Discussion Wednesday, where Benishek was a guest.
Among the issues brought to Benishek's attention were: Escanaba's effort to establish a biomass power plant, the inaccessibility of federal forest land, and the frustration about recent partisan battles in Washington.
According to Mayor Gilbert Cheves, Escanaba's struggle to find a buyer for the old coal-fired power plant is a top priority. A buyer, explained Cheves, would mean the conversion to a cleaner, more modern biomass-powered plant.
"One thing that would really help us, not only the Escanaba community, but, I think, county-wide, is the development of biomass here in Escanaba," he said. "The intent is to convert it (the power plant) to biomass It's been said that for every 10,000 acres put into production for biomass, we create 75 jobs."
This conversion would possibly lead to a boost in the local economy, said Cheves, as well as a possibly gateway for other "sister industries," like biofuel, to move into the area. He expressed his concern to Benishek the recent Budget Control Act of 2011 would impact incentives bringing these buyers in.
While Benishek knew little of the incentives potentially being discontinued by the act, he did note he would continue to pursue legislation to benefit local industries.
"I'm trying to do the best I can withthe things that keep our area moving," Benishek said.
Another concern raised by those present during the meeting was the amount of federally-owned land in the U.P. - which cannot be used for harvesting.
"You're preaching to the choir here," Benishek said.
According to Benishek, he has been attempting to persuade the federal government to stop purchasing more land and, instead, leave it to the private sector for profit.
"I had the Secretary of (the Department of the) Interior tell me in a committee meeting 'We're not in the business of making money'," he explained. "Maybe you don't care about making money, but I got people in my district that need jobs; there's a lot of jobs that could be made on that federal land."
Benishek pointed ou federal forests are poorly managed and often have problems with bugs and fires. By harvesting, the private sector could maintain sustainable forest standards while creating employment.
"It's very frustrating where I'm at - it's not very much fun," he added. "The fact that ideas like this, which are received (as) common sense to you and Iit doesn't make any sense to those people."
Delta County Commissioner Dave Rivard relayed his angst over the current state of politics - especially following the recent debt ceiling fight.
"Seeing what our legislature and our leaders are doing is extremely frustrating; I'm personally tired of it," Rivard said. "They're not there for me - they're there for the Democrats or they're there for the Republican Party - it's a party thing.
All of our legislatures, on both sides of the fence, are not considering the American people," he continued. "It's party issues we are on the edge of disaster."
Benishek shared Rivard's frustration, but pointed out he, as well as the rest of the House of Representatives, has been dealing with it first hand.
"In the House side - we passed all kinds of stuff," he said. "But the process breaks down when the Senate doesn't do anything."
While he does get discouraged by the bickering, Benishek added that the benefits of his position alleviate this feeling.
"It's very frustrating to me, too," he said. "I'm glad to be there; at least I'm involved in the discussion."
Before leaving the discussion, Benishek reassured local officials that he would address their concerns, especially regarding the biomass plant.