WNC Travel Guide

art frStepping into the blacksmithing studio at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro last Saturday, the continuous sound of hammers crashing down on metal echoed loudly out of the warehouse and into the high peaks of nearby mountains.

“And when I hear that hammering, I know we’re on the right track,” said Timm Muth, director of the GEP. “It’s a fantastic thing for us to see this, because this is what we’re here for — to give artists a place to work, to bring in people from around the community and far away, people who want to learn these skills.”

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.

art frStaring into a 2,250-degree furnace, Tadashi Torii sees his passion come to life.

“I’m really calm,” he said. “I try not to be bothered by anything else. I try to create my inner-peace area and then go from there and concentrate.”

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

art frWhat sounded like a jet engine echoed out of the building tucked away on the hill.

Peering into the large bay doors of the metal studio at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, the booming noise is coming from a foundry in the corner that was used to turn metals into molten liquid for casting.

Learning the craft

In a classic case of the student becoming the teacher, Brock Martin signed up for his first blacksmithing class at the Jackson County Green Energy Park and began apprenticing soon after.

That was four years ago.

Now, he has been teaching classes at the park for a little more than year.

“I was always interested in it,” Martin said.

However, he did not quite know how to get started or if anyone really lived as a blacksmith anymore. After a high school teacher introduced him to a group of medieval re-enactors, he began seeking out more information about the art.

Martin, 23, blacksmiths as often as he can, teaching classes or creating custom pieces for sale. A resident of Hickory, near Asheville, he makes maille jewelry and armor, among other things.

Creating something from metal can be a long process.

Students start with a metal rod, which they regularly heat to up to 2,300˚F.

The progression of the heat turns the metal from yellow to dark brown to blue to black to red.

“Once it gets red, you can really start getting it to do what you want it to do,” said Martin.

Then, they begin working the metal with all variety of hammers — ones with flat, square heads, ones with spherical heads and ones with wedges heads. Each makes a different impression on the metal, works it in a different way and can be used to make a myriad of objects. It all hinges on the angle of the metal versus the angle of the hammer’s blow.

“It’s a misconception that you have to be strong,” Martin said.

Depending on the project, shaping and perfecting an inch-long piece of metal can take more than an hour. The rod must be reheated to make it more malleable, but students must watch that thinner portions don’t get too hot. Steel begins to melt at 2,500˚F.

To temper the heat, they must immerse the thin and more easily warmed part of the rod in water so they can continue to heat thicker portions of it.

Beginning blacksmithing classes are offered about once a month at the Jackson County Green Energy Park. The park is part of a county government initiative to use the old Dillsboro landfill gases as well as promote sustainability and various educational opportunities.

The beginner classes are “very gradual” compared to the intermediate level, Martin said.

Students move from station to station, trying to master individual skills before they tackle the end goal of actually creating something.

The class sizes are generally small, making them more hands on. At a recent intermediate class, three people independently worked on projects as Martin moved from workstation to workstation, offering help and tips.

Although the class was only their first or second attempt, the three burgeoning blacksmiths have all spent time working with their hands.

Todd Sagy, 48, diligently worked on a metal toilet paper holder. As a welder, metal work is second nature, but blacksmith permits more creativity.

Blacksmithing allows him to “take something that’s nothing and make something out of it,” Sagy said.

There is a fine line between working the metal too much and not enough, said Jesse Johnson, a 22-year-old construction worker.

Johnson spent much of his time twisting the small steel rods, with which he worked, to craft a necklace holder for his girl friend’s birthday.

“It’s not that bad, really, if you are used to working with tools,” Johnson said. “Mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.”

After taking his first class, Jesse got his twin brother Josh to join in as well. Both said they had been interested in learning to blacksmith for a while but actually decided to take a class after their mother took a glassblowing class at the energy park.

Four new landfill gas extraction wells are being drilled at the Green Energy Park in Jackson County, with the resulting energy helping to fuel craftspeople at work.

The Green Energy Park taps methane landfill gas to provide fuel for blacksmith forges and foundry, glassblowing studios, and greenhouses. Methane builds up as a byproduct of decomposing trash below ground.

The new wells to tap the landfill gas marks the first time that extensive excavation has been done at the landfill since the original dozen or so in 2005. Quality Drilling of St. Paris, Ohio, is boring the wells 70 feet deep.  

“It’s important because it will allow us to maximize our gas supply here at the GEP,” said Timm Muth, director of Green Energy Park. “We’ll be able to run all of our equipment at the same time and have more artists working at the GEP creating beautiful works of art which helps to attract tourists to Jackson County — a win-win for all of us.”

Jackson County is paying $33,000 for the new wells. Several of the original wells had seen decreasing gas flow, likely indicating that the high density polyethylene well casings had become clogged with sediment, and that new wells needed to be drilled to tap the continually generating gas coming from the landfill.

“If we didn’t drill these wells the landfill gas could migrate into the ground water,” Muth said.

The Jackson County Green Energy Park is an award winning, community-scale landfill gas project located in Dillsboro. www.jcgep.org.

A blower upgrade to the landfill gas system that helps power Jackson County’s Green Energy Park has been completed.

The upgrade, which included a moister separator, should help the system be more efficient, according to Director Timm Muth, director of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park, located at the old county landfill in Dillsboro.

The new blower has nine stages of operation that should better regulate the gas output pressure while facilitating a steadier and possibly higher level of gas flow to the forges and kilns.

The Jackson County Green Energy Park uses landfill gas and other renewable energy resources to provide fuel for blacksmith forges and the foundry, glassblowing studios and greenhouses. www.jcgep.org.

A meeting to form a new Friends of the Green Energy Park organization in Jackson County is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18.

“In order to continue operating and moving forward, the Green Energy Park will need a lot of volunteer help,” said Timm Muth, the park’s director.  “We can use help with everything from working on equipment to pulling weeds, and a whole lot in-between.”

Muth will share long-range and short-term plans, and lead a discussion about the future form of the park.

Jackson County commissioners have discussed weaning the Green Energy Park from county subsidies over five years, which translates to about a 20 percent cut in county funding annually until that goal is reached. Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since it opened in 2006.

The Green Energy Park uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio.

Volunteers with skills are needed — or an interest and willingness to learn — in the following areas: bookkeeping, giving tours, planning art classes, marketing, fundraising, gallery operations, landscaping, equipment maintenance and more.

The meeting will be held in the new Jackson County Senior Center off Webster Road near Southwestern Community College.

The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.

In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.

Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.

Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.

Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”

The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.

Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.

“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.

Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”

Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.

Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.

The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”

Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”

There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.

 

The road to solvency

Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.

• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.

• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.

• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.

• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.

• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.

• Seek additional tenants.

• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.

• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.

• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.

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