Trashy Dreams

On a wide new road, beyond the city van where two workers catch an afternoon nap, there is a visible sign that Dallas is about to enter a new era of garbage technology. Or maybe not. With a sweeping view of the McCommas Bluff landfill sits the $6 million first phase of what the city hopes will someday be an "eco-park." The single-story brick building, which loosely resembles a school gymnasium, and an improved pad site area are nearly complete.

The little-known project, which aims to bring hundreds of jobs, environmental training and garbage research to what was once a run-down and environmentally questionable neighborhood in southeast Dallas, is centered on the 20,000-square-foot administration and education building. The city spent nearly 10 years getting this far and will officially open the building within weeks.

City officials say they hope it will represent the first building of many more in an area that could someday look like a traditional industrial park. Plans call for the existing building to serve as an on-site landfill laboratory and training center that will "demonstrate ecologically sound techniques that reduce pollution and minimize waste."

"The vision of this is to do environmental training and to try to figure out ways to take our solid wastes and turn them into materials for other products. We have interest from tire recyclers to turn them into asphalt and shingles and paper recyclers to turn them into things you and I use every day," says Ryan Evans, an assistant city manager.

"Eventually, it would be a true, I think, world-class facility where we could start to be able to divert our waste stream [and] save landfill space," he says. "I think it may be the wave of the future."

It also may be that the wave of the future petered out in the past. Eco-parks were a popular idea in the early 1990s, and that's when the Dallas eco-park was proposed for federal funding along with several others around the United States. It was a time when offering businesses tax breaks and cheap land in exchange for environmental concessions seemed like a fantastic way to do something good for the environment and a city's workforce at the same time. The reality turned out to be less than ideal.

In other places, business owners just didn't find eco-parks to be attractive enough to buy into them. In city after city eco-parks were proposed amid much fanfare. One even got as far as opening a building like the one in Dallas. But at almost all of the places, the planning phase is moving at a glacial pace or came to a stop as reality set in and interest waned.

"One of the things we discovered...was that industry wasn't all that hot for it. They liked the concept in principle; it just wasn't something that was a priority for them," says Rick Luna, former director of community development for the Brownsville Economic Development Council, which conducted an in-depth study of the concept.

In Dallas, the original idea, which dates to the early 1990s, was to build infrastructure attractive to environment-related businesses on about 90 acres anchored by a new eco-park administration building and research center. It was hoped that the eight square miles near the landfill would benefit from the addition of 761 jobs and that the clean new businesses would dramatically improve the area's wrecking-yard image.

The 90-acre footprint of the eco-park, which encompasses what was known as the Floral Farms neighborhood, had been partially designated as a "brownfield." An area can be designated as a brownfield if garbage or other waste was dumped on the site or if a site is considered uninhabitable because of previous industrial use. The close proximity of the city's McCommas Bluff landfill was enough to get brownfield status for Floral Farms, one official says. The brownfield designation made Floral Farms seem ill-suited for continued use as a neighborhood but qualified the site for federal funds that would help clean it up and develop it into something useful.

During a 1997 Democratic fund-raiser in Dallas, then-Vice President Al Gore announced that the Department of Commerce was awarding the city $1.5 million to clean up the Floral Farms brownfield and develop the eco-park. Just like in the other cities, officials talked up the project and touted its potential benefits.

Originally, the city wasn't going to single-handedly try to attract business and educators to the area. As late as 1997, when the city applied for federal money, Texas Engineering Extension Service, which is part of the Texas A&M system, was being called a partner in the project, according to federal documents outlining the city's request for money.

"The project will enable the city, as a partner with the Texas A&M University Engineering Extension Service, Paul Quinn College and the Dallas Community College District to develop opportunities that will help alleviate substantial unemployment and underemployment through job creation which will result in sustainable economic recovery in the economically distressed area," the city's proposal says in part.

Times change, and so did the extension service, which, with the Texas A&M name, represented a powerful draw to the project. While the city muddled around with the paperwork and property buyouts from the handful of Floral Farms landowners, leadership at the extension service changed. At some point (no one knows for sure when) the extension service decided not to participate in Dallas eco-park training programs, says Marilyn Martell, public information director for the service. They still support the concept, she says, it's just that some of the applicable environment-based coursework was dropped, and the service now has a training center in Mesquite that would duplicate the rest.

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.

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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