How a Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ
By Jeremy Richardson
For one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I'm handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Karl Dorshimer, director of business development with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), about his experience on the team leading the redevelopment of the of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in downtown Lansing.
The Ottawa Street Power Station provided coal-fired electric power and steam to downtown Lansing from 1939 until it was decommissioned in 1992. Karl shares the challenges and successes of the subsequent redevelopment project, which led to a revitalization of downtown Lansing, and retained or created more than 1,000 jobs in the city. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
J.C. Kibbey: Tell me a little about yourself.
Karl Dorshimer: I studied resource and economic development at Michigan State University, and earned a master's degree in resource economics at the University of Alaska. After graduate school, I moved back to Lansing and worked on economic development and planning for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission before moving to the Lansing Economic Development Corporation. My career was taking off right around the time brownfield development was taking off, and for 20 years Lansing EDC has done over 50 of these projects, from big projects like the Ottawa Station and work with General Motors to those for small businesses. For the last several years, I have been working for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), which in turn contracts with the Lansing Economic Development Corporation—so I'm doing essentially the same job but under a different organizational umbrella.
JCK: The successful redevelopment of the old coal-fired Ottawa Power Station into the sustainably designed headquarters of the Accident Fund (now named the AF Group) created or preserved hundreds of jobs in Lansing and helped remake Lansing's downtown. The refurbished building achieved the second highest certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, "gold" status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). You were an integral part of that redevelopment and it's a success story today, but it was a rocky road to get there. I understand that the city had been working to find a buyer for the site for years and that there were a couple interested parties but the deals fell through. What were the obstacles there?
KD: During the years it was vacant, we occasionally were approached by people who wanted to develop the site, but they were never able to make the finances work. Prospective buyers couldn't convince investors or lenders to get involved. The city of Lansing and the Board of Water did an analysis at one point to see what could be done with the site, but it never got past that stage.
There were a lot of challenges: liability issues, costs of remediation and infrastructure upgrades, tearing out the existing equipment on the site, and challenges locating public financial incentives.
The incentives that were available were based on job creation—not just any jobs but quality jobs, high-paying jobs with benefits. That's the measuring stick for a lot of public investment in economic development. A lot of the uses people were proposing for the site just weren't going to generate a lot of tax revenue or jobs.
For the redevelopment to make sense, you need a tenant who is either willing to pay a lot of money to renovate the property themselves, or pay a high lease rate to someone who renovates the site for them. Otherwise the numbers just don't work out.
JCK: Given all that, how were you finally able to catalyze the redevelopment?
KD: Lansing Mayor Virg Benero saw the site as a huge, visible symbol of decay and blight, and when he came into office, he wanted to do something about it—either redevelop it or tear it down.
The reason it finally worked is we had an end user that was large enough and committed enough to take on the project. We were soliciting requests for proposals to redevelop the site, and near the end of that process we were approached by representatives of The Accident Fund—an insurance company owned by Blue Cross Blue Shield. We showed them the property and after a long due diligence process, they made a proposal for the site.
JCK: You said the Accident Fund was "committed" to the site—why, and was that important to making this work?
KD: They were. The building itself has some pizazz—it's a really cool building for a power plant. The architect designed it to look like a flame, with darker colors representing coal on the bottom and lighter colors representing fire as it goes up.
The user wanted an urban location, it's on the river, and it's beautiful. It's really a great symbol of urban renewal, which is good for the community, and for Accident Fund as a tenant.
JCK: But even with that commitment and Accident Fund coming on board, there were still financial challenges to work through. A project this size requires large investments, suggesting the need for a public-private partnership—a contract between a public agency and a private sector entity to deliver a public good. Can you tell me about the incentives that made it work here?
KD: This was a huge, seemingly impossible project and it required public-private partnerships to work.
Our team put together a package of several different incentives that was worth about $59 million in total. That included $12.6 million in property tax abatements, $11 million in historic tax credits, $10 million in Brownfield tax credits, $9 million in Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax credits (for job creation and retention), a $3.2 million investment in a public riverfront near the site, and a $600,000 grant for environmental assessment and clean-up from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
We were able to do all that in large part because the cost-benefit analysis made sense for the city. The total cost of the project was $182 million, and those incentives made it economical for the developer.
JCK: The cost-benefit issue is often problematic for municipalities looking to repurpose coal plants—some of them still running—especially in terms of maintaining the local tax base. Can you tell me about how this project impacted Lansing's tax base and how the city viewed that?
KD: First, we retained about 600 employees, who pay city income tax, plus another 500 jobs that were to be added later. That's a future increase in revenue. The site itself was not paying any property taxes before the redevelopment. It won't generate taxes for a while because of the tax abatements, but a few more years down the road it will. There's also a significant positive economic impact of having those 1,100 employees downtown.
There are a lot of benefits—from the city's standpoint, we found these factors together to be a strong argument for investing in this project.
JCK: This building was a former coal plant and now it's LEED Gold certified. That's a great story, going from a coal plant to a building that's recognized for its sustainability. Was that an intentional choice you made when you undertook the project?
KD: A lot of this was driven by sustainability being important to the Accident Fund, and there were challenges: the building was originally designed to dissipate heat. They've turned that around and by replacing the windows and some other things, got the building to be efficient for both heating and cooling..
But also, a coal-fired power plant is not conducive to a modern downtown. People are looking at environmental issues and looking to clean power. The Board of Water and Light, which used to operate the Ottawa coal plant, put up a solar array nearby the site—it wasn't related to this project, just happened to be a good site for solar—which is helping them hit their goals for renewable energy.
JCK: You went through a lengthy process of redeveloping this old coal plant in an urban area and putting it to a productive and sustainable use. What advice would you have for other communities that are looking to do similar projects?
KD: Unless you're blessed with a great location and a strong local economy where real estate values are high, it will be difficult to get the private sector to redevelop that site and take on all those challenges on their own. You need public participation. That can include incentives, tax breaks, tax refunds, Brownfield programs: somehow you have to reduce the cost for the developer while sharing in the benefits generated.
The user of the site also plays a part in this. They need to be able to create the revenue, the rents, or the sale price to make it work. We found that a lot of less intense uses—like a movie theater, which was one of the ideas someone had for the Ottawa site—just don't generate enough revenue to make it work.
You will also run into barriers. Fortunately, we had a team that represents all the different stakeholders and found a way to work through the whole series of hurdles. It took years between the time we started the project and when construction started.
JCK: You mentioned that for a redevelopment like this to make financial sense, the site needs to be put to an economically "intense" use. What are other uses that have the necessary intensity?
KD: I think residential is one, apartments and condos. It depends somewhat on the building. I think they did a good job of leaving some of that industrial feel, those exposed beams and so on—that has character and provides value. You want to take advantage of the inherent assets that are already in the building.
Another city-owned facility, the Eckert Power Plant, is planned to be decommissioned in 2021, and we are looking at a renovation there as well. It has three large and tall smokestacks, and we were looking at those and thinking it will cost a ton of money to take them down. But the first developer to look at it seriously said—"leave them up, I like them, I can use them."
JCK: Karl, thanks for taking the time to discuss your experience with us. Your story offers insights into the challenges of redeveloping coal plant sites and the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving successful outcomes. As the nation continues to move toward cleaner and cheaper sources of electricity, these insights can help inform other communities facing the closure of a coal-fired power plant.
Jeremy Richardson is a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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