ReVenture Under Review
Tom McKittrick wants to build a development that gasifies our trash, turns it into electricity, and creates 1,000 jobs at a new green-energy innovation hub. It sounds almost too good to be true
McKittrick’s company specializes in redeveloping underutilized former industrial sites. He sees a great business opportunity with Charlotte’s chase for green energy and federal stimulus money, an opportunity that’s made him a self-described “practical environmentalist.”
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Tom McKittrick, who is tall and thin and possesses the charisma and silver hair of Bill Clinton, has explained ReVenture Park to so many people, at so many meetings, that he comes across as slightly exasperated when anyone questions him about it. He chuckles to himself and shifts his feet before answering even the most direct questions in an often-roundabout way. He’s used to pitching investors and wowing them with ideas. What he’s not used to is people quizzing him about air-quality permits and health dangers associated with substances like dioxin, a chemical that’s released when plastic is burned. He wants people to take him at his word, reminding everyone that his family lives in Charlotte and that he doesn’t want his name associated with air pollution.
McKittrick, a SouthPark businessman in his mid-forties, moved his family to Charlotte from Indiana in 2001. He is not someone you’d picture as a trash collector. But he does want your trash, because without it, his plans for ReVenture, which he brands as an “eco-industrial park,” may fall through. That’s because the park’s centerpiece is a biomass plant that will incinerate trash to generate electricity. The state labels that “renewable energy.” Environmentalists call it trouble.
ReVenture could be a boon for western Mecklen-burg County and even Gaston County, an area that suffered mightily when textile mills were shuttered in the 1990s. The development could attract green-energy start-ups, and McKittrick says it may provide as many as a thousand new jobs. Mecklenburg would benefit, too, by paying ReVenture below-industry-average rates for municipal waste removal.
In fact, the whole thing sounds almost too good to be true. A local businessman takes a Superfund site located by the Catawba River, cleans it up, and turns it into a place that generates jobs and electricity while gasifying our garbage, which prevents landfills from filling up and saves taxpayers money.
Environmentalists, and others, worry that Mecklenburg County’s already compromised air quality—ranked tenth worst in the nation by the American Lung Association—will only get worse if an incinerator’s smoke stack is added to the hundreds already permitted to spew pollution into the area’s atmosphere. They wonder why taxpayers would pay a company to take our trash, only to turn around and make money on it.
They’d also like to remind people that landfills and incinerators aren’t our only waste-management options—there’s also recycling and composting, which they say we don’t do nearly enough of in Mecklenburg County. (Roughly 40 percent of us are recyclers.) Critics are incensed that the state passed a bill specifically for ReVenture, enabling the plant to claim more renewable energy credits—currency in the energy industry—than other renewable energy projects, like wind and solar. They worry the legislation will make it more economically attractive than other, safer alternatives. Finally, ReVenture’s critics are concerned about the speed at which the project is moving through our legislative halls, pointing to other states and countries that have banned or delayed incinerators in recent years due most often to environmental and health concerns, including increased instances of asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, and cancer.
It’s a complicated story. On the one side is a developer attempting to seize a business opportunity by developing an innovative “eco-industrial” park. On the other are environmentalists who fear that local government is falling all over itself to allow the development, forsaking prudence for the promise of new jobs and a sexy green-energy hub. And caught in the middle is everyone else, breathing the air, drinking the water, and taking out the trash.
In 2004, Tom McKittrick, who was working in commercial real estate, realized that the Carolinas contain a plenitude of rundown, abandoned industrial sites. He saw an opportunity and started Forsite Development. The company buys aging industrial buildings, often assuming the environmental risks that come with them, then leases them back to the original owners, a move that can save companies money. The idea is to revitalize the site, thereby attracting investors and jobs.
Located near Mount Holly, the proposed ReVenture site is currently owned by the Clariant Corporation. It’s a Superfund site originally contaminated by a dye plant more than eighty years ago. Clariant has spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning the property’s polluted groundwater, which drains into the Catawba River. The 667-acre property is already zoned as an industrial site, comes complete with rail lines, and even has some permits in place. McKittrick says if he doesn’t develop the property, it will “grow up in weeds and rust and rot into the ground.”
In many ways, ReVenture is a dreamy project for a city lusting to lead the country in green-energy innovation, especially if everything goes as planned. It could mean 1,000 new jobs, not including temporary construction jobs. And, once completed, the park is slated to include much more than the controversial twenty-megawatt incinerator. McKittrick knows a bankable trend when he sees one. He’s pitching the project to investors, policymakers, and the general public with the prospect of including a four-megawatt solar field, indoor composting, a facility to convert vehicles for propane fuel usage, office space for renewable energy upstarts and environmental groups, and 185 acres of conserved land, including a several-mile addition to the Carolina Thread Trail, connecting Mount Holly and the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
“It’s an enormous undertaking,” says McKittrick. If the project succeeds, he envisions it expanding to include other eco-minded energy companies. Then, he intends to duplicate it on similar industrial sites that he says are “littered throughout the Southeast.”
Not only is it an innovative business model, it’s another way to get rid of our trash, by burning it to produce electricity, effectively solving two problems of a growing metropolis at once. “If it were to be successful,” says Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, “it could be a great model for other less densely developed areas of the country.”
McKittrick envisions ReVenture Park as an incubator for renewable-energy entrepreneurs, a place where they can mingle and share ideas. He thinks the green-energy movement is a “lasting force, not a fad,” and while he says the prospect of profits first lured him into the industry, he says this project has caused him to evolve into “a practical environmentalist.”