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Bennet reviews geothermal greenhouse project

Enjoying a pitch-perfect Pagosa afternoon with a stroll through Centennial Park on Monday, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet got his first look at the proposed site for a geothermal greenhouse project, while introducing himself to area residents.

Visiting Pagosa Springs to learn details of the project first hand, Bennet expressed support for the project, saying, “If we can be helpful, we want to be helpful.”

Bennet first walked to the proposed site with Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) members Michael Whiting, Sheila Berger and Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon — unofficial leader and inspiration for the GGP.

At the site, Whiting presented Bennet with a preliminary final draft of the site plan (provided as an in-kind donation by Dan Burkhart of the Civil Design Team) and described various aspects of the plan. Burkhart’s design indicated the installation of four domes, three 50-foot domes for production and a 30-foot demonstration dome and visitors center. Surrounding the domes, areas for community gardens and public meeting spaces (to host a farmer’s market, for instance) were included in the plans.

To be located on the western side of Centennial Park, the three 50-foot production domes would be used to grow vegetables for local consumers and businesses, using the town’s geothermal heating system effluent water to heat the greenhouses during the winter months. The smaller demonstration dome would be used as a visitors center, with descriptions of the town’s geothermal resources and system for tourists along with information about how those resources are used within the domes.

Walking with Aragon, Berger, Whiting and GGP member Tamra Allen, Bennet heard further details about the project, and asked how his office could help in advocating for the project and discussed various funding options available to the GGP.

“In the scheme of things, it’s about economic development,” Aragon said.

“I think the symbiosis with other parts of the community is important,” Berger told Bennet.

Making his way to The Springs Resort, Bennet was greeted by resort owner Keely Whittington at the entrance of the newly-opened luxury hotel.

The mayor addressed a standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people, introducing the project to the public.

“I do not believe we need to do a needs assessment to know we’re in an economic downturn,” Aragon said. “We’re blessed in that we have a natural resource that will be used in a proper way.”

Bennet considered the project, saying, “ The cost of the project, if you look at what it can bring to the community, is nominal. Mayor, let us know how we can do it.”

Later, in a press release, Bennet said, “The geothermal hot springs are the lifeblood of Pagosa Springs. This project is a perfect example of how Coloradans are using smart, common sense solutions to help our state meet its economic goals and provide for the community. The geothermal greenhouse in Pagosa Springs should serve as a source of local pride and economic opportunity.”

It was then Whiting’s turn to present a brief overview of the project to the public. “We like to look at this as a three-resource project,” he said. “Untapped market places and untapped resources, with zero-net greenhouse gasses. With this,” he added, “we can export vegetables and import money.”

In his presentation, Whiting pointed to other benefits of the project, such as providing healthy produce locally and throughout the region, providing educational opportunities, making the project a feature for eco-tourism and revitalizing downtown Pagosa Springs.

Following the presentation, Bennet took several questions on a variety of subjects from the audience. Local resident Anna O’Reilly said, “Senator Bennet, I hope the public option (in a proposed national health care plan) is not off the table and hope that you don’t give in to the drug companies and insurance companies.”

“In respect to health care,” Bennet responded, “I think the problems are evident. You’ve seen costs double in the last ten years. For me, job number one is how do we get those costs under control?

“Number two, as a country we’re spending 17 percent of our gross domestic product on health care. We cannot hope to compete in a global market if we’re devoting twice what other countries are paying for health care.”

In fact, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School estimate the U.S. spends 44 percent more per capita than Switzerland, the country with the second highest expenditures, and 134 percent more than the median for member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Number three,” Bennet added, “reforming our health care is central to restoring our country to fiscal responsibility. Colorado health care costs went up 93 percent in the last ten years. I will not vote for a bill that is not financially responsible ... that will not give access to health care to residents who don’t have access to health care.”

After responding to questions regarding charter schools (as the Denver Public Schools superintendent, Bennet established Denver’s first charter schools) and establishing a National Defense Energy Policy (Bennet stated that pursuing alternative energy resources and ending the nation’s reliance on foreign energy was vital to the nation’s security), the Senator gave a final nod to the geothermal greenhouse project, saying, “Let’s see if we can’t work together to get this accomplished. You’re lucky to live here.”

Albeit brief, Bennet’s visit provided the GGP not only with an important endorsement from a U.S. Senator but also indicated that the Senator was providing his unqualified support for the project. More than that, Bennet’s visit allowed the GGP to bring the project to a larger audience, raising awareness and, hopefully for the group, grass-roots support in light of support from a U.S. Senator. jim@pagosasun.com