Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.
“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.
“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”
Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.
Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.
Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.
John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.
“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.
Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”
To the Editor:
I thoroughly agree that it is past time to wake up, get Jackson County moving.” For too long we have relied upon the national and state governments to provide leadership and direction for us in Jackson County and Western North Carolina. It is past time that we came together and charted our own economic future. One of the leaders in this economic renaissance is Timm Muth, the director of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park (JCGEP).
Commissioners, I appreciate your taking a look at various county departments for efficiency, effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. It is important for our county representatives to promote open, honest, accountable, and fiscally responsible government at all levels. Otherwise, we might as well hold out a tin cup to Washington, D.C., and Raleigh and be grateful for the pennies that we do get back from the dollars that we send them.
Muth appeared before you on Jan. 3 of this year asking for a replacement to his departing assistant. You asked him some pointed questions and made the excellent suggestion that he produce a cost-benefit analysis study so as to better show you how the JCGEP benefits all of Jackson County.
I went to the JCGEP a few days before your Jan. 18 meeting and had Muth show me what he has done, what he is doing, and what he wants to do with his operation. Frankly gentlemen, the benefits of the JCGEP for the county are impressive. Capturing methane gas from the old Dillsboro landfill and using it to create viable, tax-paying, private-sector jobs is no small feat.
According to a study just recently released by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (www.p2pays.org/ref/-53.52107.pdf), there are currently over 15,000 private sector jobs that have been created to recycle valuable materials here in North Carolina. These private sector jobs, which have been promoted by operations such as the JCGEP, have increased by 4.8% since 2008. The total annual payroll for these recycling jobs in North Carolina is $395 million. There are numerous other benefits created from these public-private partnerships.
What Muth has done at the JCGEP not only is currently paying economic dividends for the investment that our county is contributing, it also has the strong probability of promoting many more private-sector jobs, tourism dollars, and tax monies to return to the citizens of Jackson County.
In the coming weeks and months we’ll be talking more about the JCGEP and the unique, positive benefits that it creates for Jackson County. In the meantime I would urge all of you commissioners to call Timm Muth, invest a little of your time going to the JCGEP, and find out the many positive benefits generated there. Remember, gentlemen, that these benefits that you will see are not in the future, but they are occurring right here and now in Jackson County.
Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.
Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).
The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.
A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.
At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.
An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.
No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.
Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.
Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)
Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.
Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.
“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.
If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.
“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.
Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.
Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)
Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.
“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.
“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”
Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?
• 2006-2007 – $100,000.
• 2007-2008 – $210,000.
• 2008-2009 – $447,383.
• 2009-2010 – $264,530.
• 2010-2011 – $218,422.
How fickle fortune can be, Timm Muth, the director of the oft-touted Green Energy Park, found upon tendering a simple request this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Muth’s desire to advertise an open staff position gave way instead to a drilling down into the project’s overall worth — or, rather, its continued cost. The park, envisioned at the outset some five years ago as economically self-sustaining, has to date not been.
But it will be, Muth said. Just wait until the original vision is completed: the addition of a new pottery studio and studio spaces. Then, Muth said, the rent received from artists and craftspeople will prove the tipping point.
“I don’t see how you can make that statement,” newly elected Republican Commissioner and local businessman Doug Cody flatly responded after eliciting from Muth that there’s an absence of hard numbers to back that claim. Prove it, Cody told him. Perform a cost analysis, top to bottom.
The Green Energy Park opened late in 2006 to overwhelming public acclaim. This was a time, not so long ago, when Democrats ruled Jackson County and North Carolina.
The park was deemed a “technological first,” an environmental wonder, “the first place anywhere” to take landfill gas and use it to make biodiesel fuel, as Muth said then. By his side were officials eager to share in the glory of such a thing. Those officials included Larry Shirley, then the director of the North Carolina State Energy Office, who proclaimed: “This is an example of what will take place across the nation and the world.”
Maybe not. These days, the wind is blowing right, not left. And the Green Energy Park might not survive conservative commissioners’ efforts to back election promises they made to scrutinize the county for fiscal waste and potential savings.
The Green Energy Park was built next to a closed county landfill outside Dillsboro. The $1.2 million project was a means of recovering methane — a byproduct of the landfill’s decomposing trash — to heat greenhouses and help fuel a blacksmith forge. A crafts village (hence the pottery studio Muth mentioned) was part of the plan.
Last summer, the Green Energy Park served as a backdrop for a visit by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The officials came for a tour, along the way dubbing the project a symbol of the new green economy.
Less than three months later, Republicans grabbed control of the state’s General Assembly and of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. In addition to Cody, Republican Charles Elders was elected, as was Chairman Jack Debnam, who ran as an Independent but relied on the GOP’s local political structure and advertising dollars to help secure victory.
Debnam started Muth’s difficulties in front of the board, reeling off a series of questions in Socratic fashion about the project’s cost to taxpayers: some grant money that had been built into the Green Energy Project’s budget hasn’t come through; the irony that thousands of dollars are required from the county to support the park’s utility bill; about rent and such not offsetting other costs.
Muth, who surely had some sense of what was coming because there were references to a prior tour of the facility by the board’s new members, seemed unprepared to answer such pointed questions.
About that pottery studio, Cody said: “All that sounds good on paper, but it costs money.” Cody made additional requests for hard numbers. And he asked the director, “What’s the end game on this thing?”
Democrat Commissioner Joe Cowan joined in with questions. He told Muth the board hadn’t had been given adequate time to review the information that was provided. More time also was needed, Cowan said, to review the director’s request that he be allowed to advertise for a new employee to replace Assistant Director Carrie Blaskowski.
Muth left to Cody’s words, “I’d just like to reiterate that I’d like to see a cost analysis done on the whole thing.”
Benjamin Elliott will teach a glassblowing workshop for beginners from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 4 and 5 at Jackson County’s Green Energy Park in Dillsboro.
Elliott has worked with glass as a medium for 11 years. In 2009 he obtained a master’s degree in glass from Kent State in Ohio before returning to the area to open his own studio in the Burnsville.
Students will learn the basic skills necessary to begin to sculpt and blow objects using hot glass. Techniques will be taught in gathering, centering, marvering and blocking. This course is designed for students with little, or no, prior experience. Class size is kept small so there is plenty of instructor and bench time for each person.
Participants should dress in clothing made of natural fibers and wear close-toed shoes and long pants. Bring a bag lunch to eat during the brief lunch break each day.
Space is limited. Pre-registration required.
Cost $295 for two-day class, due at registration
For more information or to register 828.631.0271.
The 3rd Annual Youth Art Festival will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Jackson County Green Energy Park.
Opportunities abound for hands-on art activities such as sidewalk chalk, mural painting, tile mosaics, paper weaving, hand-building with clay and tile painting. Experience professional artists demonstrating their abilities with hot glass, basket-weaving, pottery, blacksmithing, painting, drawing and more.
New this year, there will be a stage with entertainment throughout the day. Guest performing artists include a Mexican Mariachi band, Cherokee traditional dancers, a jazz quintet, numerous local musicians and performing artists, a dancing trash dragon, and Western Carolina University’s esteemed Gamelan group.
“The festival is a great opportunity for local youth to get creative themselves while they watch artists and entertainers perform and demonstrate,” said Carrie Blaskowski with the Jackson County Green Energy Park. “We hope to see many families come out and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Blaskowski said the event wouldn’t be possible without the support of Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.
“Many of the participants, entertainers, volunteers and artists are students, faculty and staff from the university and from SCC. It has been a great collaborative effort,” Blaskowski said.
This event is free and open to the public. The Green Energy Park is located off Haywood Road near the Huddle House in Dillsboro. Free shuttle and overflow parking runs every 10 minutes from the Monteith Park near downtown Dillsboro.
Growers looking for greenhouse space may find what they need at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, where large greenhouses are heated using energy from methane given off by decomposing trash.
There is more than 4,000 square feet of greenhouse space available for rent, either by one grower or an organization. One-year lease begins in January and is renewable for up to a total of three years.
Biodiesel serves as a backup fuel source. Tenants share other utility costs and the cost of a rainwater collection system that provides most the water needs.
The winner of the Jackson County Green Energy Park 2010 Sculpture Competition is Box of Souls, a contemporary sculpture by artist Bob Doster of Lancaster, S.C.
Selected by an independent jury panel, Doster’s piece is a constructed stainless steel box, cut away to reveal empty space in the shape of numerous geometric and representational figures including the sun and stars, humans and animals.
A winner of the 2007 Southern Arts Federation Award, Doster has had his sculptures displayed throughout the Southeastern United States and around the world. He is an internationally acclaimed sculptor whose unique style of metal art ranges from accent pieces with a whimsical feel to large-scale installed sculptures.
Doster’s commitment to engaging and educating youth was formally recognized in 2006, when he received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner award for outstanding achievement and contributions to the arts. This award is the highest honor South Carolina bestows on artists.
Box of Souls will be on display at the Green Energy Park through July 2011. Visitors may view the piece year-round during regular park hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. www.jcgep.org.
The Jackson County Green Energy Park took center stage last week as Governor Bev Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission dropped in for a tour, touting the initiative as a model of the new green economy.
Perdue spent about an hour watching artisan demonstrations, and visiting with state and local leaders at the park, which uses landfill methane gas to power a blacksmith’s shop and a glass-blowing studio. She even left with an armful of Christmas presents, having purchased hand-blown vases and cheese spreaders forged in the blacksmith’s shop.
For the park’s director Timm Muth, the tour was an opportunity to emphasize the human side of green science.
“What I wanted them to take away even more than just the fact that we use landfill gas is that the park is an example of people thinking outside the box to meet the energy needs and the economic needs of our local community,” Muth said.
The Jackson County Green Energy Park has received $100,000 in grants from the ARC since 2007, and it’s rapidly becoming a showcase as a creative use for small-scale methane gas, a byproduct of decomposing trash.
In the past year, Muth has hosted visitors from Ukraine, Mexico, India and China who have come to see how the landfill methane can drive the furnaces that power the park’s glass blowing and blacksmith shops.
“It helps provide a buzz so people can get interested in green energy,” Muth said. “When they’re standing 10 feet from one of these glory holes and they feel the heat or see a blacksmith melting steel, they see how it works.”
Local blacksmith John Burtner has rented shop space at the park for the past two years. Burtner uses a modified methane furnace to heat his metal at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees. He says his energy source is part of the marketing appeal of his final product.
“As far as I know, I’m the only blacksmith that uses landfill gas to forge,” Burtner said. “I make sure when I show in a gallery to let people know it’s a green energy product, and it’s a huge selling point.”
The green energy park is also an example of how county government can attract state money by taking a risk. Methane levels in the county’s landfill were dangerously high. It would cost $400,000 to simply remediate the problem. Instead the county put that money toward a more ambitious project.
“We were going to have to spend money one way or another, and I’d been studying methane uses for some time,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “The technology had changed to open up the possibility for small landfills.”
Jackson County followed in the footsteps of a similar project at a landfill near Burnsville, another small mountain town.
Since its opening, the park has landed more than $600,000 in state and federal grants, including $140,000 from the State Energy Office and $120,000 from the N.C. Rural Center.
When the park first began tapping its methane reservoirs, Muth estimated there was a 25-year supply of gas. Westmoreland said last week there’s enough methane now to tap 10 more wells. The county is currently in the process of adding a pottery studio at the complex that will require more energy to heat the kilns.
N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the park showed how the region is working to implement Perdue’s push towards a renewable energy economy using local, state and federal dollars.
“In effect, we’re recycling,” Haire said. “You couldn’t do anything with methane for years, and we started this project five years ago and now it’s creating jobs. It’s the first step towards a renewable economy.”
For County Chairman Brian McMahan, the tour was a gratifying chance to see the reward for making an environmentally sound decision.
“We had a vision when we were told by the state that we had methane levels we needed to deal with,” McMahan said. “We could have flared it off and put it into the environment, but we put our heads together and this is what we came up with.”
The Jackson County Green Energy Park recently opened the first landfill methane-fueled art foundry in the world.
“Because of the increasing costs of fossil fuels, as well as the environmental impact of the fire arts in general, demonstrating that landfill gas can work in a foundry situation opens up new opportunities for the preservation of these art forms,” said Tracy Kirchmann, a Western Carolina University graduate student and assistant to JCGEP.
Kirchmann was a recent recipient of an honorable mention in the International Sculpture Center’s Outstanding Student Achievement Award.
The foundry was built to increase the versatility of the metals shop for incoming artist residents. The JCGEP metals shop has two studio spaces available for one to three-year residencies, and is also available for four-week residencies and internships year round. Resident artists share access to the 2,500-square-foot shop, which includes metal fabrication equipment, blacksmithing forges and the foundry.
As the JCGEP program develops, additional works will be shown onsite through an annual sculpture competition. This year’s selected piece, “Metamorphosis,” is a sculpture made of cor-ten steel by Waynesville artist Grace Cathey.
To date, JCGEP also has completed construction on a metals shop featuring a series of greenhouses, three blacksmithing forges, and a glassblowing studio that is slated to open this fall. The major appliances in each of these facilities utilize the landfill gas as their fuel source.
For more information, or to organize a tour of the JCGEP, call 828.631.0271.