Bennington Banner: Pro-biomass group forming Business owners want ‘Citizens for a Prosperous Pownal’

Feb 23, 2011 No Comments by

Reposted here from the Bennington Banner.

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Posted: 02/21/2011 11:17:58 PM EST

Monday February 21, 2011

POWNAL — A few local business owners want to organize a pro-biomass group to counter detractors of a proposed 29.5-megawatt biomass and pellet manufacturing facility.

Beaver Wood Energy, LLC, is seeking the state permits it needs for the facility, which it hopes to build at the former Green Mountain Race Track. The site is owned by Progress Partners. About two dozen people were invited to attended a meeting of what John Armstrong, Bruce Martel and Stanley Bratcher hope will become the “Citizens for a Prosperous Pownal.”

Armstrong said that this week the group intends to send a pamphlet to residents to get more members and make what he called a “silent majority” of people who support the development at the track less silent.

“Citizens in Pownal have started a local group to ensure that the community gets factual information that will help them make the right decision when it comes to Pownal’s future,” the opening line of a draft copy of the letter reads.

They met Saturday at the Pownal American Legion hall along with the track’s owners, representatives from Beaver Wood, forest industry workers, and Select Board members Nelson Brownell and Harry “Hap” Percey.

Percey said he generally attends meetings he’s invited to, and has gone to presentations less friendly to the biomass project in an effort to learn more about it.

Over the summer, a citizens group formed to study Beaver Wood and its proposal, but with half the members saying at the first meeting they had a negative view of the project, the group became an anti-biomass organization, set up a Facebook page, Website, and e-mailing list, and hired an attorney to represent it.

It’s become the Southern Vermont Citizens for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Energy, and its members also count themselves among the Bennington-Berkshire Citizen’s Coalition, a group of Vermont and Massachusetts residents that has expressed concerns over the project’s potential impacts.

“I’m for jobs and business, and this will make it happen,” said Armstrong, owner of the Pownal View Barn, which sells furniture. He said when the race track was built in the early 1960s, businesses came to the immediate area and taxes went down.

Much of the meeting involved an informal presentation by Beaver Wood managing director of engineering and construction, Bill Bousquet, who reiterated many of the claims the company has already made, with a focus on job creation. He said the plant would ultimately employ 50 people directly, and 140 positions in the forest industry. He said the two-year construction phase, while temporary, was not to be discounted, and further cited the ripple effect the new jobs would have on further job creation.

Bousquet said the large development firm Beaver Wood has partnered with, Bechtel, has said it will use local labor for the construction work, and said the majority of the plant’s operations jobs can be held by locals with some training. He said the two high-level supervisor positions for the biomass and pellet facilities will likely be positions for which experience will be necessary, however.

The base salaries on those jobs range from $115,000 for plant manager, to $40,000 for an administrator, Bousquet said, and that doesn’t included added benefits. Most of what Beaver Wood has said about its project can be found at www.beaverwoodenergy.com.

Bousquet was asked if other towns in Southern Vermont had told Beaver Wood that they would be amicable to biomass development if the Pownal site was not used. Bousquet deferred the question to Thomas Emero, managing director of development and operations, who wasn’t present.

“Yes, we have been in contacted by other people that are interested in our project,” said Emero in an interview Monday. He would not say who has contacted the company, or what region they’re from.

Beaver Wood has already put $2 million into permitting for the Pownal site, officials said, as well as the site for a similar plant in Fair Haven.

Of the pro-biomass group, Emero said, “I’m glad to see the people that are in support of the project, which I believe to be the majority, are organizing and finding their voice.”

A small number of those present were skeptical about the amount of available fuel for the plant, saying most of the timber in the area is privately owned by people who wouldn’t sell to the plant. Bousquet said fuel studies have been done that address the supply. He said tops, branches, and low-quality wood will be used, and echoed the company’s past stance that providing a market for “junk” wood will lead to a healthier, managed forest.

Brownell said that economics typically motivate a person’s decision to sell timber rather than the intended use.

Frank Cantatore, a member of Progress Partners, said at the meeting he’s looking for some support from the town on the projects proposed at the track, which includes a 2.2-megawatt solar field by EOS Ventures.

Cantatore said the track is at a crossroads. He said that in order to operate, a business has to either reduce costs or grow revenue. As it stands, the property is open to use by the public. Events are held at the grandstand, which is in need of repair, and there is a baseball field at one end of the site.

Property taxes and electric bills — for the grandstand — are the two largest expenses, followed by vandalism, he said. If revenue doesn’t start to come in, the electricity will have to be cut to the grandstand and the Partners will have to petition the town for tax relief.

Vandalism has been a problem at the track for a long time, he said, but has increased recently. He said some of the windows are expensive to replace.

He said that while the townspeople shouldn’t support something blindly without asking questions, there are misconceptions about how many people wish to develop it and how much money Progress Partners has at its disposal. It’s taken two years to have projects begin to materialize at the site, he said. Partners bought the 144-acre site in 2004, and a number of ideas were proposed for its use, including housing. Cantatore said he commissioned an economic study which showed housing developments weren’t feasible there, and so the idea then turned to making it an energy park.

Contact Keith Whitcomb at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com.

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