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Big step forward for greenhouse project

Signaling a willingness to move forward with a geothermal greenhouse project, the Town of Pagosa Springs signed a lease with the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) last Thursday at Town Hall, dedicating both land and geothermal water for the project.

With the lease in hand, the GGP is now in a position to pursue state and federal grants for the project. Prior to signing the lease, the project stood pretty much at a stalemate, largely unable to secure seed money due to grant funding requirements. The leases remove those obstacles.

The GGP was formed in late 2008 by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon. While Aragon had considered the idea of geothermally-heated greenhouses in town for several years, the idea never got off the ground, as previous groups that worked with Aragon were unable to get the project past the conceptual stage.

The GGP, however, succeeded where other groups had failed. After a series of meetings in early 2009, the GGP was able to enlist the support of Rep. John Salazar and Sen. Michael Bennet (who visited Pagosa Springs last August specifically to view plans for the greenhouses), while convincing the Pagosa Springs Town Council to dedicate land and geothermal resources for the project, as well as providing a statement of support.

By late summer, the GGP had developed a conceptual design (with in-kind donations provided by local engineers Civil Design Team) and, during Sen. Bennet’s visit, revealed to the public a refined draft of the project.

Using geodesic greenhouse domes provided by “Growing Spaces” (local manufacturer of the domes), the project will be located at the west end of Centennial Park, where McCabe Creek flows into the San Juan river.

As currently conceived, the project would include three 51-foot domes to serve as community gardens, another to facilitate commercial growers’ pilot projects, with a third large dome made available to local schools for educational purposes. One or two 33-foot domes would be used as a visitor’s center and exhibition garden.

Furthermore, the project concept includes exterior community gardens, a permanent location for a Farmer’s Market, a cold-storage facility and public restrooms.

Designated as the first phase of the project, the public geothermal greenhouses would hopefully generate enough interest to establish the groundwork for a Phase II — commercial applications of geothermally-heated greenhouses.

Plans for Phase I would make the project almost entirely energy self-sustaining, using geothermal water for heating and solar energy (through photovoltaic solar panels) or geothermal power generation to provide electrical power.

Larger plans for the project look toward various elements promoting Pagosa Springs as a standard bearer in green, sustainable energy and permaculture. Such identification would hopefully attract visitors to the area who would not have normally designated Pagosa Springs as a destination.

Furthermore, by involving educational institutions at various levels, the greenhouses would not only provide opportunities for learning and study, but could potentially provide groundwork (and, perhaps, institutional support) for internships, certificates, or even degreed programs in areas as far-reaching as alternative energy technology, horticulture and botany.

Finally, the project would provide tangible resources important to the area: jobs and organically-grown produce. As many as a dozen jobs could be created in order to staff all aspects of the greenhouses. Produce grown in the greenhouses would be made available to local businesses and restaurants that, in turn, would advertise their produce as “organically and locally grown, right here in Pagosa Springs.”

Now, with leases signed for both the land and the geothermal tap (both for a period of ten years), the GGP has grounds for pursuing state and federal grants to fund the project.

Said Michael Whiting, representative for the GGP and executive director of the Southwest Land Alliance (fiscal agent for the GGP), “I would call it a milestone in the project, a benchmark in over eight years of work.”

“It establishes a firm commitment from the town,” he added.

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem (who signed the lease at the behest of the town) affirmed that the town was behind the project.

“Both the ground lease and the geothermal tap were items that the town council approved of last year,” Mitchem said, “and we finally put it on paper.”

“The town is fully committed to the project,” he added.

Further good news for the GGP was recertification on Tuesday by the Region 9 Economic Development District as a qualified Enterprise Zone Project.

According to Region 9 Economic Development District Assistant Director Laura Lewis-Marchino, the GGP qualifies as Enterprise Zone project, as it is “basically a nonprofit infrastructure project instrumental in creating jobs or economic benefit.”

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

With the leases secured and tax credits assured for donors, Whiting said the GGP has already begun pursuing funding for the project.

“We will be submitting a request through Rep. Salazar for 2011 appropriations,” he said, adding that he felt confident the money would be in the budget for the project. In addition to that, Whiting said the GGP would be aggressive in applying for future stimulus funds allocated for green projects and green jobs creation.

With those funding opportunities newly available due to the leases, Whiting said he felt confident the GGP’s dream would soon become a reality, expressing gratitude for the people who helped the project take such a major step.

“The GGP, town council and David Mitchem all deserve credit,” he said, “for getting this to move forward.”

jim@pagosasun.com