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Public meeting provides update on geothermal greenhouse project

Last Thursday, about 25 residents filed into the conference room of the Ross Aragon Community Center to hear an update by the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) on the progress of a project to install geothermally heated growing domes in downtown Pagosa Springs.

It was the first public meeting held by the GGP since a presentation given last August during a visit by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (in Pagosa Springs specifically to endorse the project).

During Thursday’s meeting, GGP member Ilene Haykus, leading the presentation, stressed that the GGP would hold more public forums in the future. The GGP intends to hold another public forum Tuesday, June 22 (time and place to be determined).

Speaking to the project’s place in a list of Rep. John Salazar’s proposed appropriations for the 2011 federal budget, as well as a pending grant application with the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office (GEO), Haykus said, “Now we’re just kind of in this holding pattern.”

According to GGP member Michael Whiting, the estimated start-up cost for the project, including materials, construction and operations, would amount to, “Just under $1.4 million.”

The appropriations request, amounts to $1.097 million and is on a preliminary list that will be refined within the next few weeks. Indeed, the GGP hopes to hear news by the end of this month.

Supposedly, the GEO grant would cover the other $300,000 of the estimated costs.

During the 90-minute meeting, GGP members recapped some of the details of the proposed greenhouse project, as well as answering questions from the public in attendance.

As conceived, the project would include three 50-foot domes (one for commercial growing, one to be used as community garden and one for educational purposes through the school district), as well as a smaller 33-foot dome to be used as a visitor’s center and demonstration garden.

Furthermore, the project would rehabilitate a mostly unused portion of Centennial Park (community gardens exist in a small portion of the area), as well as McCabe Creek. Finally, the project would shore up a portion of the riverwalk that many residents know to be treacherous.

Among other amenities would be an expanded community gardening space both inside and outside the domes, as well as a permanent space for a farmer’s market and other community functions.

Long the dream child of Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, the idea has endured several inchoate and unsuccessful iterations. Conceived of as a commercial enterprise under the aegis of town government (a problematic proposal), the project appeared to be a nonstarter as late as December 2008, when the Archuleta Economic Development Association was denied a $40,000 grant for funding a feasibility study. Frustrated by AEDA’s failure, but unwilling to allow the project to flounder, in late 2008 Aragon approached several people from amongst the area’s best and brightest to reconsider the viability of a geothermal greenhouse.

Reenergized by the efforts of the newly-formed GGP, weekly meetings in early 2009 helped the project to, in the words of one committee member, “Go from something conceptual to something on the ground.”

By April of last year, the GGP held a groundbreaking ceremony, having secured a promised location (at the west end of Centennial Park) and a tentative agreement for geothermal water (to heat the greenhouses) through approval from the Pagosa Springs Town Council (the GGP signed 10-year leases for the land and water this past January).

With representatives from Rep. John Salazar’s office, as well as representatives from senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall’s office attending the groundbreaking ceremony, joining officials from the town and county, April marked an important landmark in the project’s progress.

That progress was given a further boost during Bennet’s August visit with the senator giving the project a rousing endorsement.

After August, the GGP continued to meet in order to refine details as to what the project would look like to local residents. Not stalled, the project seemed to be in momentary stasis as the group awaited word from local, regional, state and federal governments.

In January, Region 9 Economic Development District Assistant Director Laura Lewis-Marchino said that the GGP qualified as an Enterprise Zone project because it is, “Basically a nonprofit infrastructure project instrumental in creating jobs or economic benefit.”

The Enterprise Zone benefit to the GGP is that it provides direct state income tax breaks for donors: a 25- percent tax credit for monetary donations and 12.5 percent for in-kind donations.

In February, the town of Pagosa Springs signed 10-year leases with the GGP for 100 gallons per minute of its geothermal effluent, as well as the land in Centennial Park dedicated to the project (a condition of the leases is that the project would reach completion within three years).

Finally, in March, it was announced by Salazar’s office that the project was placed on the congressman’s appropriations list.

Again in a “holding pattern,” the GGP attempted to put the project back into the public’s mind with Thursday’s forum. “We hope you’ll contact our elected representatives to keep the project front and center,” Haykus said.

“Isn’t there another place you could put that (the project),” one local resident asked.

“This land was the best choice for the location due to its proximity to the geothermal facility,” Whiting answered, pointing out that another proposed location (just west of the county courthouse on the south side of U.S. 160) was prohibitively expensive — $500,000 at current market prices — whereas the GGP will pay $140,000 for a parcel just northeast of project’s location in order provide a sufficient footprint for the greenhouses and ancillary structures.

Local business owner Udgar Parsons pointed out the project’s potential as a visitor’s destination, comparing the project to the Eden Project in England. “Over one million visitors a year from all over Europe come to visit the domes there,” he said.

Parsons’ company, Growing Spaces, a local manufacturer of geodesic growing domes, is providing the greenhouses for the GGP’s project.

It was Aragon, however, who had the last word, just as he had the first word over three years ago. “One thing that I want to emphasize is that this project would not have been possible without town council.”

With the public brought into the loop (and another meeting scheduled for June 22), the GGP hopes to garner more local support for the project. Persons interested in joining the GGP or otherwise helping out can sign up as a member at southwestlandalliance.org/greenhouse/ or search Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership on Facebook.

And, the public is always welcome at GGP meetings, Whiting said. “Our meetings are open, all the time.”

jim@pagosasun.com