Lisa Stifler is a Research Associate with the Community & Economic Development Program.
A number of rural counties throughout North Carolina have used local environmental problems and concerns to spur economic development. In response to closed landfills, escaping methane gas from the landfills, and/or increasing waste being dumped into their landfills, these counties have taken a creative and innovative approach to addressing rural environmental and economic concerns.In Yancey County, a partnership between the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council, Handmade in America, and Mayland Community College resulted in the development of EnergyXchange, an internationally known energy recovery project located in Burnsville, NC. The partnership developed the nonprofit organization and project after the small landfill Yancey and Mitchell Counties shared closed in 1994. The project captures methane gas from the closed landfill to power the EnergyXchange complex, which includes 4 greenhouses, a retail craft gallery, clay and glass studios, and a visitor’s center. The complex also houses a craft incubator program, which supports craft entrepreneurs and provides studio space at a nominal fee and art and business training opportunities. EnergyXchange has been operating for more than 10 years.
Jackson County followed the lead of Yancey and Mitchell Counties in 2006 with the opening of the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, NC. The Jackson County Green Energy Park project (a nonprofit organization) also had its beginnings due to the closing of the small county landfill. The project redeveloped an abandoned industrial site adjacent to the landfill, building artist studios (glass, pottery, blacksmith), greenhouses, classroom and conference space, a cafe, and a retail gallery. The methane from the landfill is captured and used to fuel the park’s buildings. The park also offers a craft entrepreneur program similar to the EnergyXchange program. In addition to using methane for the greenhouses, the park also uses biodiesel as back-up fuel, and as a result, the park serves as a drop-off location for used cooking oil. The Jackson County Green Energy Park has won a number of awards, including the 2006 Project of the Year Award from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Economic Development Leadership Award from the NC State Energy Office. (Will Lambe highlighted Dillsboro and the Jackson County Green Energy Park in his Small Towns, Big Ideas book published in 2007.)
Perhaps the most comprehensive and forward-thinking project is the Catawba County EcoComplex. The EcoComplex is unique public-private partnership comprised of a county-run landfill (currently in use), a number of private companies, and university research facilities. The goal of the EcoComplex is to develop a system that recovers all useable products and by-products from public and private partners located in and around the EcoComplex site. The partners work together to use each other’s waste products either as a source of energy or as a raw material for production of their own products. Although originally conceived as a primary means to reduce the industrial waste being dumped in the county landfill, the complex has long-included a strong partnership with the county economic development office to attract private businesses to locate in the county and on the complex. These efforsts have brought at least 150 jobs to the county. In addition to the landfill, the methane recovery facility, two or three businesses, and the research facility, additional businesses, a sludge processing facility, greenhouses, and a biofuel facility are in development. The EcoComplex has received a number of national awards, and is one of two county government run facilities of its type in the country.