Geothermal greenhouse project — still a seed

With last week’s postponement of an informational meeting and open forum, the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) announced that the project is still very much a seed and not quite ready for germination.

The GGP’s open forum had scheduled a May 28 meeting at the Pagosa Springs Community Center, hoping to inform local residents of the project and for the solicitation of public input but postponed the meeting just days before it was to take place.

Although the GGP had hoped to bring conceptual drawings, site designs and a business plan for public view, the GGP conceded at its May 25 meeting that the group was unprepared to present those details in a way that would satisfy the curiosity of the general public, much less provide answers to questions that local residents might have regarding the project.

However, the GGP expressed that it was less concerned with the effects of postponing the public forum than with the potential damage that would have resulted from a poorly-prepared presentation. Furthermore, members of the GGP expressed confidence that, as a board of volunteers working with area businesses to provide pro bono materials and services for the project (with the exception of printing, the GGP has yet to spend a dime on the project), local residents would understand if the GGP could not exactly follow the brisk timeline of normal business development.

“We’re completely volunteer,” said GGP committee member Rick Bellis. “People need to understand that, as volunteers, obligations and responsibilities can get in the way of work here.”

The June 1 GGP meeting, attended by Pagosa Springs Town Council member Jerry Jackson, found the GGP still lacking the progress it needed a week prior. Conceptual drawings and site designs (provided gratis by local engineering firm Civil Design Team) had still not been completed, while the GGP itself remained at the starting line with an inchoate business plan.

“I’ve gotten quite a lot of feedback about the look of the domes,” Jackson said, addressing the GGP this past Monday. “My original vision for a downtown geothermal greenhouse was more of a botanical garden look and feel with more traditional Victorian English-style greenhouses.”

Jackson went on to say that he had heard concerns from several constituents on how the domes would contrast with the general look and feel of downtown Pagosa Springs. “I’m not opposed to this,” he said, “I’m just coming with concerns about the project and, by far, the number one concern I’ve heard is about the aesthetics of the project.”

However, exactly what the look and feel of downtown Pagosa Springs is seems to defy definition. With elements of Southwest adobe, Old West-style facades, Victorian “Queen Anne” styles and generic 1960s modernist structures, all inhabiting the downtown area, it could be argued that any so-called “aesthetic” of the downtown area is less a result of a cohesive vision and more a product of utilitarian expediency.

Not arguing that downtown Pagosa Springs lacks a defined aesthetic, the GGP instead hoped to allay Jackson’s fears by stressing the low visual impact of the domes alone and the fact that domes would be, for all intents and purposes, temporary structures. The three largest domes proposed for the project would have a height of 21 feet, the GGP said, the tops of the domes just visible from street level at U.S. 160.

The GGP also explained to Jackson why the domes were better suited for the project, emphasizing not only the low-mass footprint of the structures (making them portable — and if necessary, temporary, but also suitable for placement within the flood plain), the heating efficiency of the greenhouses for year-round growing, the low start-up cost and, in keeping with the “community” aspect of the project, with the domes manufactured in Pagosa Springs, the fact the project would directly support a local business.

Answering Jackson’s questions regarding markets and whether the greenhouses would compete with local growers, GGP member Michael Whiting said, “We don’t want to compete and as I’ve told the mayor, we need to pursue alternate markets,” pointing to plans by the GGP to provide fresh, naturally-grown produce for seniors and low-income families.

Whiting and GGP member Kathy Keyes also reiterated that the GGP is partnering with the local farmer’s market and, according to Keyes, “We have the full support of the farmer’s market. We’re hoping to include some public space for the farmer’s market and other events.”

Further elaborating plans for the project, the GGP explained to Jackson that, although one of the domes would be a “demonstration dome” (a visitor’s center to showcase the project and the town’s geothermal resources) and another dome would be for educational purposes (for local schools and a master gardener’s program), other domes would be for production and research, with local residents employed to work in the production facilities, man the visitor’s center, and handle administrative tasks.

However, as the GGP told Jackson, the group hopes it can get volunteers to help with the botanical aspects of the greenhouses and stated members stated the desire to partner with local gardening clubs to provide advice and expertise on what plants to grow and how best to grow those plants.

“I think you guys are onto something,” Jackson said. “And I think the picture could grow to be something big.”

Having apparently calmed most of Jackson’s fears, the GGP will most likely continue to hear objections to the dome structures and how a modern, almost space-age looking facility will fit into the hardscrabble appearance of downtown Pagosa Springs. However, when Dubliners were faced with prospect of the installation of a thoroughly modern spire in the heart of their downtown, there was heated opposition to the project. Yet today, the spire is a source of pride for a vast majority of Dubliners and few there would say that they wish it had never been built.

Like Dublin, Ireland, Pagosa Springs may face the new and the modern and will do so with, oftentimes, fierce resistance. And like anywhere else in the world, in Pagosa Springs, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

jim@pagosasun.com