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Wednesday, 02 October 2013 16:19

Green Energy Park at a crossroads: Jackson commissioners ponder future of venture

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fr greenenergyThe future of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park may depend on county commissioners doubling down.

 

The innovative venture taps the methane emanating from an old county landfill to power artist kilns and forges for blacksmithing, glass blowing and ceramics, along with greenhouses for local growers.

 

But with financial support from the county at a fraction of what it once was, the Green Energy Park is at a crossroads, said Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth.

Historically, the county funded the park’s operations to the tune of $250,000 a year. But, the county decided to decrease the funding, by 20 percent each year. Funding this year is at $135,000.

That’s put pressure on Muth to find a way to make the Green Energy Park financially self-supporting. Muth’s solution: spend money up front to finish out the park’s master plan, in turn creating more studio space, which in turn can be rented out to generate revenue.

“I’m caught in a quandary,” said Muth. “On one side, I’ve got commissioners telling me this place isn’t profitable and it’s a drain on the county coffers. On the other side, we can’t become anywhere near self-supportive because the project isn’t completed.”

Muth said he needs a cash infusion from the county for an expansion, primarily for ceramics studios, to generate more rent from artists and reduce reliance on county funding.

The additional studio space was part of the park’s original master plan but was left incomplete. The $70,000 worth of kilns and crates to outfit the pottery shop was already purchased with a federal grant years ago and is waiting in storage.

Without the build-out, the park will be stuck in a sort of limbo, or may even close if the county decides not to fund it further, said Muth. 

The project will cost about $900,000. Muth asked the county for $450,000, with hopes of raising the remaining $450,000 or so in grants and donations. In all, 14 new studio spaces would be added — and rented out between $350 and $500 per month — as well as a courtyard, a lounge and a pottery shop. The park only has communal work stations now. There is no permanent, individual studio space for artists.

Muth also would like to have funding to hire a manager who could oversee the artistic and marketing side of the operation. Muth’s background is in engineering and project construction.

Muth pitched his long-range plan to county commissioners in September but was received with skepticism from some. Commissioner Doug Cody said he doesn’t want to be funding a program that provides cheap studio space indefinitely for an artist. He’d rather like to see the park as a stepping stone before artists get their own studio space in a nearby arts district.

“I think it definitely needs some incentive to move on — if not, they would have all this equipment available with nothing invested,” he said. “Basically, we’re subsidizing people.”

However, Muth pointed out that the park was never meant to be a profitable venture, rather an educational and recreational asset to the county, much like a swimming pool or gymnasium. That, in turn, has benefits that reach beyond the bottom line of the park’s budget, perhaps attracting homebuyers or vacationers.

“Everyone wants to build an indoor swimming pool and a recreation center, are the fees that people pay ever going to pay for that pool?” Muth said. “No, but that’s not the point.”

He believes, if brought to its full potential, the park could be a feather in the cap of the county. It already is in many ways.

Visitors from across the globe stop in to see the park, one of the only endeavors in existence that takes gas from a landfill and converts it into art. The Green Energy Park goes hand in glove with nearby Dillsboro, an artsy village known for its studio-lined streets. Two new artist galleries are opening in Dillsboro this month. 

County Manager Chuck Wooten acknowledged that the park does have a reputation for the unique work that is done there in the fields of art and green energy. But he expressed concern at investing heavily in expanding studio space that might not even be used. He recommended some sort of market study be conducted to see if there is public interest in renting the space.

“The worst that would happen is to build a facility, and it’s a nice facility, but there’s no interest in it,” Wooten said.

Muth said he receives numerous inquiries about studio space from artists, but that may not be enough to sway commissioners.

If not for the Green Energy Park, the methane gas seeping off the landfill would have to be captured and flared off since it is an environmental hazard.

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