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Silver Bay eco-park could shed new light on city

Silver Bay is planning a project that isn't your father's business park. It's green sustainability plan would be a model for the future, experts say.

The eco-industrial business park planned for Silver Bay could put the city on the map as a beacon of green industry.

The small town is thinking big. Plans for the eco-industrial park off State Highway 61 on the waterfront just north of County Highway 5, include a biomass heat and power facility, a greenhouse that could grow food for distribution within the city, and a fish farm that would make use of fish waste to grow algae for biodiesel fuel.

The AmericInn hotel would be part of the group of businesses forming a self-sustaining cluster.

The city would also promote the model and offer tours.

"Silver Bay has really taken the bull by the horns and developed what began as an idea into a very significant eco-park," said Tim Nolan, a principal sustainable industrial development planner with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "They are on the cutting edge, which is very interesting for a small town." Nolan has been a contributor to the project, helping the city as it homes in what they want to do with the project.

The city, known mainly as the place built by Reserve Mining in the 1950s and home to Northshore Mining today, is like any other small town that wants to create jobs and diversify the employment base. But it also wants that growth to be good for the environment.

The project has a potential to create hundreds of jobs throughout its buildout and existence, City Administrator Lana Fralich said. The idea is for the city to become more independent, she said, not having to rely so much on imports of fuel and other goods.

Fralich says it won't be the sole employer in the community, or replace a history rooted deep in the mining industry. It will shed new light. "There's a lot that can be done here," she said.

Fralich is cautious to get too excited about the benefits the eco-park could bring to the city because the project is still in its early phases. But Nolan agrees that the possibilities are there. "This becomes a new way of saying 'How can we reinvent our community? How can we distinguish it?'" Nolan said. "They are putting together pieces that will deliver something very, very significant if they can achieve it."

Nolan says the eco-industrial park could attract outside businesses that are environmentally-driven. "If I am a green business, a truly green business, in order to be successful in the green marketplace I need to prove that I can do things much greener than other people," Nolan said. "Right now it's hard for a green business to have renewable energy."

He said if the city can put together strong business models, the eco-park could be an attractive spot to locate because of the project's goal of sustainable energy, zero waste, and zero emissions. Nolan says the project is about "solving problems with economic value playing out."

There are some potential secondary effects from an eco-park as well. A pellet facility to heat other parts of the business park could help give business to the struggling logging industry, all while keeping the forests surrounding Silver Bay healthy.

The Silver Bay eco-industrial business park would be a model for other Minnesota cities that want to incorporate sustainable practices into their economic development plans. The key, Nolan said, is for communities to be open-minded and learn from each other. "Communities are used to competing with each other. Is that the way of the future? Not really," he said.

"This could be replicated all across the country," Fralich said. "If it works in Silver Bay it could work just about anywhere."

Nolan said that he has dealt with many people who seek his expertise. For him to be able to take them to a thriving eco-industrialpark in Silver Bay would not only be a hands-on way to show what could be done but would also give Silver Bay the distinction of being a leader in earth-friendly economic development.

The move to create the eco-park is a risky one. Nolan, Fralich, and project coordinator Bruce Carman all agree that they need to take careful steps. "We can take small steps. That's the nature of humans, especially on a community level," Nolan said. "Well, some of this is revolutionary and takes big leaps."

He said that not many communities have been willing to take on such big plans for sustainable energy and business in a time when cities are worried about keeping services running under shrinking budgets. "It's tough to be first because you'll make mistakes," Nolan said.

Maintaining a park with zero emissions and sustainability ramps up the curiosity about how the park can make money for its businesses. "Numbers are there to show that it can be significant," Nolan said. "But then again there are always downsides, and so they've got to be vigilant to make sure they can achieve the highest economic stewardship."

Nolan says he is impressed with how open not only the leaders but the residents of Silver Bay have been to the concepts of the project. "People don't need to understand the academic jargon and theory," he said. "But they get the idea that there needs to be a new future here and that they've got to take control of what it is and for it to be successful it has to be something distinguishable."