Trashy Dreams

The city hopes its new "eco-park" will mean jobs and business. That may take some luck.

Other entities that were awarded federal grant money as part of the same U.S. Department of Commerce multimillion-dollar eco-park push are in the Port of Cape Charles, Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Baltimore, Maryland; Choctaw County, Mississippi; Burlington, Vermont; and Brownsville.

In Brownsville, the federal government paid $168,000 to conduct a feasibility study of the "Texas Eco-Industrial Park."

"The Brownsville Eco-Industrial Park is unique in that tenants will not be physically located together in an industrial park setting. Instead, it will be a 'virtual park' of companies spread across Brownsville and Matamoros linked by an exchange of materials," a federal report on the grant spending says.

Dallas officials hope this building will be the cornerstone of a new environmental industrial park.
Peter Calvin
Dallas officials hope this building will be the cornerstone of a new environmental industrial park.

The Brownsville park certainly turned out to be virtual. Luna, who was director of community development for the Brownsville development council from 1995 to 2001, says that besides industry's lack of interest, they also learned that harvesting usable garbage would be a formidable challenge.

"We found that most of the stuff that was attractive to recycle or reuse was already being diverted in some other way," he says. "It turned out that the only available waste streams were things that were incredibly difficult to get rid of...If brokers couldn't get any use out of it, there was no way an eco-park was going to come in and be viable."

The only park that is actually operating among those proposed for federal funding is the Port of Cape Charles. It is a tiny and remote coastal community mostly sustained by two chicken packing plants and separated from the mainland at the south by a miles-long causeway and tunnel that costs $10 in toll each way. In the Port of Cape Charles, a 30,000-square-foot $3.5 million administration building opened on a 200-acre eco-park about three years ago. The county went begging for business and actually considered selling the building until it finally found two suitable tenants about nine months ago, says Ray Otton, the project manager.

The two tenants, one a catalytic converter salvage company and the other a company that harvests blood from horseshoe crabs for pharmaceuticals, together employ about 10 people and occupy about half the available space. Otton says he believes a combination of environmental restrictions and a practically nonexistent workforce represent the biggest marketing obstacles. But, Otton says, as far as he knows, theirs is the only truly functioning eco-park in the United States.

"We are still not self-sustaining; the county is still paying for some of our infrastructure and obviously my salary, but we're getting there," he says.

Dallas never gave up on the idea because even if the eco-park concept lost its luster in the years since Gore's announcement, the grant was still available. Rather than risk losing the money, the city decided to push ahead with the eco-park project, Evans says. That's why construction began in the summer. Yes, he says, the concept has changed somewhat from the original idea but not for the worse.

"Quite frankly the vision is better now because what we're talking about now is actually having an environmental group that manages the facility that has expertise on waste diversion and can hook up with our landfill administration and recruit companies to do just that," Evans says. "The plans that we're talking about, hopefully we'll be in the situation or position to announce the first [new tenant] by spring. We're pretty fired up about it."

Anna Albers, a member of the Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee and one who has watched the development of the Floral Farms area for at least 10 years, says she does not believe the area will be attractive to environmental businesses because other land is available that is cheap and not downwind of a landfill.

It seems likely to her that the anchor building will not be the beginning of a bigger development but more likely the end--something that seems to be borne out by the experience of eco-park promoters elsewhere. She predicts that the city will probably eventually take the building over for various administrative functions, something that has already partly happened.

Evans says the city has a good prospect for a tenant that could provide up to 100 jobs working to recycle paper products. The tenant is serious and could sign a formal agreement to build at the park by spring or summer. Many other potential tenants have also expressed interest in the park, and other Dallas-area universities are certain to be interested in the site once it opens officially, Evans says.

The eco-park's first occupants will be some city landfill administration workers who are moving from a portable trailer at the McCommas Bluff landfill.

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