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Wednesday, 18 November 2015 15:11

Trash or treasure? Jackson leaders discuss future of the Green Energy Park

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coverGet off the U.S. 74 exit for Dillsboro, descend the steep hill to the light, turn right for a 1-mile drive down Haywood Road and you’ll soon notice a bright-colored sign announcing that you’ve reached the turnoff for the Jackson County Green Energy Park.

Up the hill, the steel-framed building — once the warehouse for Webster Enterprises — comes into view. A gallery housing works of pottery and blown glass, all made on site, occupies part of the building. The remaining space is home to workshops for the blacksmiths and glassblowers whose work is in the gallery. 

“It’s the only place that’s doing this,” says a soot-covered J.R. Small, taking a quick break from the blacksmithing forge to do an interview. 

Small, a 27-year-old from New York City, is in the midst of a two-month blacksmithing internship at the park. As Small told Jackson County Commissioners during a public comment session this month, he could have gone anywhere in the country to take the next step in his blacksmithing career, but he chose Jackson County. Home to the world’s only metalworking shop fueled with landfill gas, the park fits both Small’s personal beliefs surrounding the environment and his love of the craft. And besides, Jackson County is just a nicer place to live than New York. He’d like to move here permanently some day. 

The Green Energy Park opened in 2006 after Jackson County closed down its aging landfill in 2000. County commissioners at the time wanted to do something different than the typical approach of flaring the methane gas that results when trash decomposes, and so they envisioned a project that would harness the gas’s energy to turn trash into art. Specifically, metalwork, blown glass and pottery. 

“I probably would not have blown glass again if this wasn’t here,” said Judy McManus, 62, who went through the glass program at Western Carolina University before it was cancelled. “They have everything here.”

For the past five years, McManus has been a regular at the Green Energy Park’s glass-blowing shop, keeping a sporadic schedule that might hover around 10 hours per week. She sells her work in the park’s gallery, to word-of-mouth buyers and to a few other galleries in the area — but she still has a closetful of work at home. 

“It brings me joy,” she said. 

The barrier of entry into a trade like blacksmithing or glassblowing is high, but to use the facilities and equipment at the Green Energy Park, artists need only a basic working knowledge of the craft and the means to pay an hourly fee. Getting started becomes a lot easier. 

 

Struggles with revenue

While those who use the park undeniably appreciate it, there’s certainly not a waiting list to get in. 

In fact, the park has caught flak for its sometimes-low rent revenues. In the 2014-15 budget year, the park brought in just $2,265 from studio rent — an average $189 per month, and just 1.5 percent of the overall budget. Adding in other revenues, such as donations and fees for classes, brings the park’s total revenue for that year to $9,754, about 6.5 percent of expenses. 

Last year’s revenue was an all-time low for the park, however, with rent revenues topping $10,000 every other year since 2009-10. The peak for revenue was 2010-11, when the Green Energy Park pulled in a combined $21,398 from rent, classes, gallery commission and donations.

But even the 2010-11 revenue represents just 10.6 percent of expenses, and to some, those numbers are proof that the Green Energy Park is nothing but a drain on county coffers. 

Others see it differently. The park hasn’t realized its full potential, they say, because it’s still waiting on its final phases of construction — a new building for ceramics and artist studios. 

“When the Arts Center is finished, I think those income levels will be a lot larger,” said Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth. 

The reason? Well, Muth said, basically every university and community college in the area has some kind of a ceramics program. But when it comes to metalworking and especially glassblowing — Haywood Community College actually does have a metals program — there’s not much around. 

“What they (ceramics program grads) need is a safe place where they can come in, rent a studio place, have access to some equipment so they can develop their business and once they get a strong enough business — well, then they probably will want to move on and have an actual storefront somewhere,” Muth said. 

The proposed Arts Center — commissioners have just approved a $35,000 architecture and engineering study that will help them decide whether to fund the project, estimated at $327,000 — would add a ceramics shop with four benches. An addition with 14 open artist studios is planned for later. 

“The artisans are out there. They are,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, a longtime supporter of the park who was on the board when it opened. “They need affordable places to go to, to make their art and retail shops to sell the art. I just feel that the Green Energy Park has that potential.”  

But would completing the project really cause the park’s yearly revenue to jump from the five-year average of $14,481 to $94,650, as Muth projects? And even if it does, the county would still be facing a hefty gap between the park’s income and its budget needs. If the Muth’s right that the park’s operating expenses would increase to $250,000 per year following the expansion, then the projected income would represent 37.9 percent of budget — a much greater proportion than currently generated, though certainly not close to self-sustaining. 

So, county leaders must ask, is the best use of county resources to expand the park, maintain the status quo, or some third choice? 

 

The question of self-funding 

The board of commissioners serving prior to the 2014 elections went with the “some third choice” option. That majority on that board had seen the park primarily as a financial drain on the county, incapable of paying for itself or even progressing, however incrementally, toward that goal. The board began slicing away at the park’s funding, with the county contribution falling from $264,530 in 2010-11 down to $134,000 by 2012-13. When a new board of commissioners was elected in 2014, they hiked funding for the 2015-16 budget year to $178,461 — a 33 percent increase over the previous year. 

Jack Debnam, who served as commission chairman from 2010 to 2014 before losing his seat to current chairman Brian McMahan, stands by his board’s actions. 

“As long as the county’s pouring money into it, there’s no incentive for anybody (to move toward self-sufficiency)” Debnam said. “It just seems like they think if they come ask for it, they deserve to get it, and there’s a bunch of other people around that think the same thing that aren’t getting it.”

By cutting the budget, Debnam said, the board was trying to encourage park staff to ramp up their efforts to increase revenue. 

For instance, he said, the Green Energy Park could be doing a much better job of advertising its presence. Sure, there’s a sign at the entrance on Haywood Road, but a tourist passing through Dillsboro or cruising U.S. 74 would never know to drive that direction. 

“There’s not even a sign to tell you there’s a Green Energy Park if you’re on the main road (U.S. 441 or U.S. 74),” Debnam said. “That was always disappointing to me.”

Debnam isn’t the only one who would like to see the Green Energy Park do more to get the word out. 

“One of the things about the Green Energy Park, which I don’t think has been done yet, is tying it more into the town of Dillsboro and the craft community there,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene. “Yeah, it’s a mile or so outside of town limits, but I think it could be done.”  

Joe McKee, co-owner of Tree House Pottery, agrees.

“You got to know where you’re going to get there,” he said. “That would be step number one I think for making it a productive facility is having signage on the road directing them (tourists) to it.”

Muth doesn’t disagree with that criticism. He knows the park should be doing more in the way of advertising, but the budget for that kind of thing has just been too small, he said.

“I didn’t really have anybody (on staff) who could focus on marketing efforts other than myself. With someone on staff who can focus more on that and a slightly bigger advertising budget, we are going to be able to increase our market penetration,” he said. 

Currently, he’s working to get an ad in Our State Magazine and planning to start talks with the N.C. Department of Transportation to get a highway sign installed — a process fraught with red tape, he said. Muth also had the chance to talk with a Raleigh marketing specialist earlier this month when Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price brought him to the area. 

“We’re trying to do a better job of that,” he said. 

But it’s not like no one ever visits the park, Muth said. For instance, there’s the MINIs on the Dragon Mini Cooper club that comes by every year, touring the facility and paying Green Energy Park artists to make them a keepsake. The park has had visitors from 15 foreign countries, and it hosts school groups from elementary through college on a regular basis, averaging one educational tour per week. 

 

A difference in philosophy

While Muth wants to see use increase, making self-sufficiency the bar for success is basically setting the park up for failure, because its value isn’t best measured in dollars, he said. 

“Certain people make a big deal about how much money we’ve made this month, but we are a governmental service facility, so we’re supposed to provide services,” he said. 

McMahan agrees. 

“The only department in county government that is self-funded is the register of deeds office,” he said. No one expects the Sheriff’s Office to cover its budget by writing tickets, or the Health Department with fees, or the Permitting and Code Enforcement Office with permits. So why should the Green Energy Park be any different? 

“Has it come with no cost and is it all self-supporting? No,” he said. “But I think there’s a cost to anything you do, and in the long term when we look down the road, I think the benefit of it is there.” 

Which basically brings the debate down to a difference in philosophy. Is the Green Energy Park simply an innovative service the county offers its citizens — just as school buildings, recreation centers and a health department are services — or is it a superfluous endeavor too expensive for its relative importance to county function? 

“I think maybe we’re a little overspending on it right now,” said Commissioner Charles Elders. “It could be a good thing, but it’s not showing to me much profit as of yet.”

“It was a money pit, and it still seems to be a money pit,” Debnam said, adding that in his opinion, it’s not fair to compare the park to a rec center or a school. Both of those facilities serve a lot more people than the few artisans who rent space there. 

As for the concrete-and-steel skeleton slated to become the new Arts Center, why not “kill two birds with one stone “ and turn it into the new animal shelter the county needs so badly, Debnam asked. The building could still be powered with methane gas, allowing the “green” moniker to stay. 

McMahan, meanwhile, sees the Green Energy Park as a chance for Jackson County to show rather than just tell. He believes the park serves an important educational purpose that shouldn’t be minimized. 

“There’s this educational component, which to me is the most important — just being able to teach people and to see what is possible,” he said. “I’ve used the terminology ‘turn trash into treasure.’ Obviously you’re taking rotten trash that’s creating a gas and instead of blowing it off into the stratosphere, why not use it to benefit somebody?” 

Muth agrees. He loves taking groups of school kids through the park, letting them experience firsthand the three different kinds of heat transfer — convection, conduction and radiation — at the blacksmith forge. Or welcoming Western Carolina University’s strength and materials class, showing them how the crystalline structure of various metals changes with the heat. 

“That’s real, hands-on education that most engineers never get,” said Muth, an engineer himself.

 

Art as economic development

Building the Arts Center would bring another dimension to the project as well, supporters say — economic development. 

Colleges all around the region have ceramics programs, each year spitting out graduates with plenty of talent and desire but no capital to start their own shop. 

“I turn out probably three potters a year at SCC (Southwestern Community College) who get their certification, and they graduate and still take classes out there because there’s nowhere for them to work out here, and they don’t have the means to get their own studio,” said McKee, who in addition to owning a studio teaches pottery at SCC. 

He’d like to see the Arts Center materialize, because it would give fledgling artists a place to practice their craft, produce some work to sell and build up the resources and clientele to open their own shop. 

“I don’t see that as subsidizing,” Muth agreed. “I see that as fostering the creation of private-sector jobs.”

Nearby Dillsboro sells itself as a little town rich in artisans and artists, putting on festivals throughout the year that highlight its heritage. Most recently, the WNC Pottery Festival brought about 40 potters to town, a critical mass of artists that brought thousands of visitors and prodigious sales, McKee said. If something like the Arts Center project made it easier for more potters to set up permanent shop in Dillsboro, that would help everyone. 

“The more potters we can get in town, the better our business does,” he said. “If it will bring even five more potters to the area, it would be awesome because it gives people a choice, a variety, and puts the town on the map as far as pottery goes.” 

 

Considering a nonprofit

But all that costs money, which brings the argument full-circle. Pretty much anyone you ask will say it’s doubtful that the park could ever become fully self-funded, so where does that leave the county? 

For his part, Muth would like commissioners to consider his request to form a nonprofit arm of the Green Energy Park. 

“What we keep running into is the fact that because we don’t have a 501c3 nonprofit, it really limits what (grant) programs are available,” he told commissioners at an October work session. 

If the county kept up with the landfill remediation and gas extraction side of things, he said, a nonprofit could manage the studio rental, class planning and grant-seeking side. Hopefully, that would result in grant dollars largely replacing county contribution to the Green Energy Park. 

“It might make some people more comfortable with it, because they wouldn’t feel like they’re supporting someone else’s salary who does art classes (with tax dollars). They could consider whether or not they want to contribute to a nonprofit or don’t have to,” Muth said. 

Commissioners weren’t really buying Muth’s pitch, though, raising questions about whether a nonprofit with as strong a tie to the county government as this one would have would actually get any interest from funders. 

“If it could be spun off and greatly reduce the county’s contribution to it (the Green Energy Park), I think it would make me very happy, but if I were a funder and it was owned and operated by a local government with taxing capabilities, I wouldn’t give it a second glance,” said Greene, who before running for commissioner was heavily involved in the grant seeking and awarding process at the Southwestern Commission, where she worked for 36 years. 

True, the Jackson County Library has a nonprofit arm — Friends of the Jackson County Library — that fulfills a similar function to what Muth has in mind for the proposed Green Energy Park nonprofit. But the library isn’t technically a county department, Greene said — it’s a part of the larger Fontana Regional Library, which Jackson County supports from its budget — so a funder would see the two differently.

But in the world of grants, different funding organizations have different perspectives. 

“It really sort of depends on the circumstance,” said Philip Belcher, vice president of programs and grants for the Community Foundation of WNC, a nonprofit that awards grants using dollars from the many funding organizations it works with. “And it depends on the funder. I’ve known foundations who won’t give to any government entity. I think that’s rare. They’re more often than not looking for the right entity.”  

Sometimes it’s just easier for a nonprofit, rather than a government entity, to be in charge of the grant-seeking process. Most funders understand that, Belcher said, though adding the caveat that he’s not familiar with this particular project. 

There are also plenty of variations when it comes to what kinds of projects funders want to fund, Belcher said. Some might want to give toward capital projects, ensuring that their money will go to create something tangible. But the old rule of thumb that grants shouldn’t fund overhead and salaries isn’t so true anymore, Belcher said. 

“The fact is that most nonprofit work happens because of the workers who are in the nonprofit, so it’s really a myth that overhead is bad,” he said. “You have to have people in order to get most of this kind of work done.”

But plenty of considerations besides ease of finding funding surround any potential nonprofit formation. For instance, are there enough people with enough commitment to the Green Energy Park to volunteer their time on the board and move the project forward? What, exactly, would the division of responsibility be between county and nonprofit? Is it really such a wise idea to turn the day-to-day of a project on which county leaders have worked long and hard over to an as-yet-unknown board of directors?  

For his part, McMahan believes the park should remain under county control. Beyond the artisan-related functions, education is a big part of his vision for the park. He’s got ideas for its future and wants the county to take the lead on exploring them. 

“I feel more comfortable with it (the organizational structure) remaining as is,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Muth sees the nonprofit as a buffer between the project and any future political changes on the board of commissioners. While the current board supports the project, the last one did not, and who knows what turnover coming elections might bring? 

“In part I’m also trying to figure out how to establish the longevity of the project so all the work we’ve put into it is not all of a sudden wiped away in one fell swoop,” he said. 

 

Looking to the future

The Green Energy Park itself cannot always remain as is, however. Though production is strong right now, the methane in the landfill won’t last forever. At some point, that power source will run out, and the park will have to rely on other means of electricity if it is to continue. 

Initial projections had put the life of the landfill’s methane production at 20 years, meaning it would run out between 2020 and 2030. But more recent thinking has changed that estimated life to the 30- to 50-year range, Muth said, with suggestion that closed landfills should be monitored for 100 years. 

“I think it’s very safe to say we have another 20 years of gas coming out of our hill,” Muth said. 

But the gas will eventually end, and McMahan would like to see the county look into solar power to carry the park forward. That idea fits with his own philosophy of environmental responsibility. 

“It’s one thing to tell somebody they need to do something, but it’s another thing when you can show and live by example,” he said at a work session last month. “I think we need to find ways to use alternative energy sources, and I think this is something we need to explore a little further.”  

If the county installed solar panels atop the closed landfill, it could sell the power back to Duke Energy to offset its own power consumption, the panels keeping the “green” spirit of the park even after the methane gas is gone. If the entire 3.5 to 4 acres on the old landfill were covered with solar panels, it would be the largest such farm west of Canton. 

It would also be expensive, likely costing more than $1 million to install with a 20-year payback on energy costs, Muth said. Unless the county could find a third party to help shoulder the cost, it wouldn’t be a good idea to pursue, he told commissioners.

A more affordable option might be to install rooftop arrays on the Green Energy Park buildings. Instead of being sold back to Duke, that power would offset onsite demands, providing 40 to 75 percent of the park’s energy demands, depending on how much area the array covered. The Green Energy Park currently spends about $850 per month in electric bills.

“I think it would make sense in terms of energy security because it does kind of protect us against rising energy costs,” Muth said. 

Whatever the future holds for the Green Energy Park, the discussion is likely to continue with strong opinion on opposing sides, because ultimately it comes down to a question of opinion. 

“You can twist it how you want to,” Jones said. “If you’re an advocate, you can make it sound wonderful. If you think it’s a waste of taxpayer money, you can make it sound like a waste of taxpayer money.” 

 

 

By the numbers

• $2 million — amount Jackson County has given to the Green Energy Park since its creation in 2006. 

• $267,000 — construction cost for the Green Energy Park. 

• $374,000 — estimated cost to build the Arts Center ceramics workshop and artist studios.

• $14,481 — average revenue produced from 2010-11 to 2014-15.

• $94,650 — projected annual revenue after the proposed Arts Center is completed.

• $189,111 — budget for 2015-16.

• $250,000 — projected annual cost following completion of the Arts Center.

• 4.8 micrograms per liter — level of the contaminant dichloroethene detected in 2013, down from the 1999 level of 31 micrograms per liter and well below the water quality limit of 6.0. 

• 1.7 micrograms per liter — level of the contaminant benzene detected in 2013, down from the 2002 level of 14 micrograms per liter and just above the water quality limit of 1 microgram per liter. 

• 750 gallons — amount of waste vegetable oil recycled to fire the Green Energy Park’s existing pottery kiln.

Source: Jackson County government

 

What is the Green Energy Park? 

The Green Energy Park launched in 2006, hailed as an innovative way to turn trash into art. As garbage decomposes, it releases methane gas, so when Jackson County closed its old landfill, it had to develop a plan to manage the output. 

Typically, small landfills like Jackson’s simply pump the gas out and burn it before releasing it into the air, but commissioners at the time decided to try something different by creating the Jackson County Green Energy Park, which harnesses the gas to power the bulk of energy needs for blacksmithing forges, a foundry and a glassblowing workshop. A kiln powered by waste vegetable oil and trash wood is also on site.

The next phase of the park’s master plan is creation of an Arts Center, to be built on an existing concrete foundation using the existing metal beams. The new building would house four benches in a ceramics workshop, and pottery equipment purchased with grant funds is already in county possession. Once the ceramics phase is done, the county may consider building the final phase of the park, an addition with 14 open studios that artisans and artists of all stripes could rent for an affordable rate. 

 

Cleaning up the environment 

Decomposing trash releases more than just methane. Nasty chemicals such as dichloroethene, dichlorobenzene and benzene are also wrapped up in the rot, and the operation at the Green Energy Park gets rid of them, too. 

“When we draw a vacuum on the hill to get the methane out, we’re also getting many contaminants out,” said Timm Muth, director of the park. 

Those contaminants get wrapped up in the stream of gas that goes to the metal forges and glass shops, and in the blazing hot temperatures required to do those crafts, the harmful chemicals are destroyed, breaking down into mostly carbon dioxide and water. 

“We really are having a positive effect on the environment in addition to just pulling the methane out of the ground,” Muth said. 

The numbers tell the tale. 

In 1999, dicloroethene levels clocked in at 31 micrograms per liter, more than five times the water quality limit. The 2005 reading for dichlorobenzene was 19 micrograms per liter, more than three times the limit. And in 2002, benzene clocked in at 14 micrograms per liter, 14 times the limit. By 2013, those measurements had dropped to 4.8, 1.8 and 1.7 micrograms per liter, respectively. 

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