Ramble On

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Clarendon Construction - Final for March 2010

Earlier in the week I received word that for the summer I will temporarily move to our offices in Washington, DC, near the Farragut West Metro station. That means that my Clarendon Construction updates will become a bit more sporadic – there are still a few reasons I would come over to this office, and I expect I will a few times, so I can update then. My group will relocate back to this building in August or September.

As usual, here are some photos of the two main buildings I’ve been tracking since demolition of the old buildings began in January 2008. The masonry on the large building across the street is just about complete. Also, I noticed that the tower crane has been taken down on the mid-block building, now that the masonry platforms are up. Looks like everything is on track for occupancy by the fall, as advertised on the site signage.

There is a third interesting project going up around the block – there is a plan to build a block of apartments behind this church, in the airspace over the top of the education building behind it. In a future post – maybe in lieu of photographic updates, I will see if I can’t find the developer’s concept drawing and post it.

Finally, here is something I will miss while I am at the DC office – the Whole Foods (or Whole Paycheck as some like to call it). Don’t get me started on how this building was the Sears Lawn and Garden Center when I first moved to the DC area in 1990…

Ok, until next time – there’s our update.

Comment Moderation Is Working

Although I have taken a little grief for it from regular posters, this morning I rejected a spam comment - the sole English word was "cleansing."  There's really no telling what these messages a packing, so we'll just keep it safe for now!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Moscow Subway

The terrorism incidents in Moscow yesterday left me thinking about the subway system there.  I was in Moscow in 1997, on a trip investigating grey market issues for 3Com - we spent a week in the city, with half the team taking a 36-hour round trip train ride to St. Petersburg mid-week.
Here's a subway map of the city's system - it's extensive and very efficient.  The Lubyanka Station, where one of the bombings yesterday occurred, is at the intersection of the purple and orange lines near the center of the map, while Park Kultury is at the intersection of the brown ring and orange lines, about 7:00 on this map.  Both are transfer stations so you can imagine how busy they were at rush hour.

My team used the subway a lot during our trip, but we never exited at these two stations.  You can't see it on the map, but I made a little pencil mark at all the stops we went to - a total of 8 during our trip, including Sokol, where the 3Com office was, and Belorusskaya, where our hotel was, both on the green line to the north.
Thinking about our trip in 1997 is a nice memory, but the events of yesterday were a shocking dose of reality - sometimes we forget that there are still places in the world where it's common to try and resolve differences with violence.  Oh, wait...

Monday, March 29, 2010

As seen on Hawksbill Park Road: Jordan Hollow Inn Foreclosure

Last month when I drove in to the Board of Supervisors meeting, I saw a big red foreclosure sign at the front of our neighbor, the Jordan Hollow Inn.  Since then, news of a foreclosure auction has been printed in the PN&C newspaper. 

It seems to me to be another sign of how tough this economy has been.  This is the second time the establishment faced foreclosure - last summer it did as well, but the owner was able to stop the proceding.  No such luck this time.

Mary has indulged me in letting me take a look at the property and consider making an investment here.  The research we did may form the basis of future posts.  It's enough to say for now that this has given us an excellent opportunity to get to know our Page County neighbors better - so no matter how the auction turns out, at least we have that going for us!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Page County EDA 2008 Strategic Plan Recap, Part 3 - Business and Industry

This is the third and final recap post on my review of the 2008 update to the Page County EDA’s strategic plan. Today’s post reviews the plan’s “business retention and attraction” section – the material regarding business retention is by far the shorter of these two goals, so we’ll start there.  Later next week, I'll take a look at the 2009 update.

Even a cursory review of this plan update shows that in 2008 the EDA had already vectored itself onto a perceived need to expedite the purchase of “ready-to-go” sites – a concept eventually leading to the Project Clover land deal.

Now on to the review of the plan –

“In order to retain businesses in Page County, public education is needed to let firms know what resources (financial, information, expertise, etc.) are available to leverage their existing efforts and investments.” This quote is the sole reference to existing business in the 1.5 page executive summary of the plan. It is a distinctively noncommittal observation – “public education is needed” – no assignment of responsibility, no data, no performance metrics.

Further back in the plan, where the goal and objectives are listed, the four items listed for retaining existing businesses are basically a repeat of those found in the 2003 plan:

  • Expand existing efforts to educate businesses…
  • Continue to build relationships with existing businesses…
  • Undertake a survey of local businesses…
  • Identify companion businesses to those existing in the county…

The first three are given high priority, while this last is rated less important. All were to be done with current staff resources – Chamber of Commerce, EDA, or Board of Supervisors resources – and some with current funding. The middle two above – the relationships building goal and the survey – require program funds for implementation; which is the same status they had in the 2003 plan, if I recall correctly. One thing I would like to see is a status report, not just in this section but in all sections – going back to the old stratagem of “what gets measured gets managed.”

The plan includes a straightforward justification for these simple investments:
  • “…existing businesses provide the greatest opportunities to provide new jobs and capital investment.”
  • “…business retention is even more critical than business recruitment to the economic viability and growth of the County.”
These are strong statements – and their placement in the plan is significant, appearing as they do before the discussion of goals related to recruiting new businesses. There is a long history of businesses leaving the County or closing outright. And the data shows that more than 60 percent of Page County's workforce commutes to work places not located here. If I were an owner of an existing business in Page County, I’d be asking questions about this – and I’d want to know why, with this kind of wording around the goals, more hasn’t been done to support existing businesses.

It gets to the soapbox point: why all the fuss about a land deal that will cost a lot more money than the small outlay it would take to lay the ground work for future growth, based on what’s already here?

Seems to me, this is another case of low-hanging fruit, along with overlooking the tourist and agriculture sectors as possible investment targets, that was missed somehow by the Board of Supervisors and the EDA. I’d love to see a revisit of these items as part of the way forward for the County.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Page County EDA 2008 Strategic Plan Recap, Part 2 - Agriculture

Continuing the review of the Page County EDA’s 2008 Strategic Plan update today, focused on the topic of sustainable agriculture.

The updated 2008 plan summarizes the state of Page County agriculture by highlighting the declining number of farms: from 1,327 farms in 1940 to less than 400 in 2008; 5,800 acres of farmland repurposed between 1997 and 2002; and a decline in the market value of production from $115 million in 1997 to $108.7 million in 2002. As outlined here, the challenges contributing to this decline include: competition from producers elsewhere, the pressure to sell land for development, and rising costs of feed, fuel, and fertilizer.

Especially interesting right now is any discussion about poultry farming in the County, since there is a lot of pressure on the folks trying to make a living this way. The farmers own the land and buildings, but the poultry is owned by the large companies – Tyson, Cargill, Pilgrim’s Pride – who are beginning to make better economic decisions about where to locate their operations, with the result that Page County is often not optimal. And when I use the term “better economic decisions” I am referring to the simple fact that these large companies are acting in their own self interest to minimize their costs. The implementation often involves consolidation of farms, suppliers, and processing in close proximity to each other to minimize transportation time and costs – a decision process that does not favor Page County.

To be the selected location, economic theory suggests there needs to be a natural advantage, such as a major center of production for feed corn or some other input resource, or a point of intermodal transfer for transportation. Page County has none of these – and the decline of farms and farm production income is the result.

On the other hand, these consolidated centers of production are not operated in the most sustainable ways – I’d bet that there are a lot of challenges containing and managing waste materials, and energy use is not a top priority for management. With the Shenandoah River facing stress from other past and present sources in the watershed, there is yet another reason that Page County may not be the best location for these operations. Even so, Page County remains the second largest poultry producer in Virginia.

From the poultry industry, the plan turns to sustainable agriculture for two pages. For all the hustle and bustle that I see from week to week on this topic during the summer, the relative lack of importance it is given in this plan is surprising, since the plan sets up the concept of a three-legged stool for the Page County economy – tourism, agriculture, and industry.

The plan outlines three strategies for developing sustainable agriculture in Page County, but provides little detail on how to implement them – doesn’t even call for the first step in implementation, an assessment.

Here are the three strategies:

  • Plant substitute crops – soybeans and hay: soybeans to tap into the bio-diesel market with the side benefit of creating animal feed as a by-product; hay to cater to the growing number of horse farms in Page County.
  • Emphasize sustainable approaches – take advantage of the growing demand for local produce and the areas proximity to larger markets in Harrisonburg and Northern Virginia.
  • Repurpose resources – create an agri-tourism destination; transition poultry farms to horse farms; and create non-traditional agro-enterprises such as wineries in Page County.

These strategies and sub-strategies offer an excellent summary of current American culture’s relationship with agriculture. Of seven insights, only one of them even acknowledges a connection with food production, and one other considers agricultural production as an input to industry; all seven require major capital investment; and two of them are linked to the other economic stool-leg of tourism.


Past blog posts here have considered the economics of hay farming, as well as the sustainable agriculture approaches listed here. I haven’t been able to get further into an assessment of these subjects to determine whether they could be relied upon for a family’s livelihood, as much as I would like to believe they offer that potential.


I mentioned the absence of real planning here - at least in this plan - and the absence of any kind of metrics to measure progress. What are the recommendations for developing sustainable agriculture in the 2008 Page County Economic Plan? Fine-sounding concepts, “innovation, communication, and cooperation” are emphasized and a program of forums, engagement, and even an agriculture summit are proposed, but they are given lower priority than educating Page County’s political leadership.


Compared to the 2004 plan, this 2008 plan is short on details and imagination. Having completed a review now of tourism and agriculture, the next step is to review the strategy and goals for industry; given the appearance of much current emphasis on that sector – Project Clover, the purchase of developable industrial land – I’m anticipating there will be more detail there. That’s a pity, because as the plan itself says, Page County agriculture is a “$108 million industry” comprised of “400 small businesses.”


An industry and small businesses that were not given a priority in the 2008 plan, that is.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Page County EDA 2008 Strategic Plan Recap, Part 1

Early in the week I posted a summary of my review of the Page County EDA’s 2004 Strategic Plan – today, we’ll move on to summarize the review I did of the 2008 update. Keep in mind that all of this was done at the time the controversial land deal known as Project Clover was being put together. In checking the original posts, I had a couple of thoughts about tourism, sustainable agriculture and retaining existing businesses – I will summarize those here in the next few days before moving on to the 2009 update of the plan.  And by the way, although I have comment moderation turned on to protect the world from spam - your comments are important and appreciated - so take a moment to comment if you care to!

Back in the dark ages, when I went to business school at USC (note: that's Southern California, not the other USC) the emphasis was on entrepreneurship – and as a result, on how to write a business plan to attract investment and support. It’s been so long now that I didn’t have any of those resources at hand to guide my review of the 2008 update; I vaguely recall that the progress through a plan, no matter how it was organized for presentation, was to read the idea first, skip to the resumes, look at how the plan proposed to execute, and then look at financials.

The Page County plan doesn’t include all of this material, but it does start with a vision statement, so at least we can take a look at that as the central idea of the plan. There are five elements of the vision, and I think it can be assumed that these would pass muster with most County residents:

  • Better quality of life for the community – includes better wages, improved infrastructure and amenities, a healthy place to live, and improving employment prospects;
  • Job retention and creation – seen as a “fundamental” goal;
  • Retain the rural character of the community and natural resource protection – including mountains, groundwater, caves, and rivers, but also farms, woodlands and open spaces;
  • Balance the growth between agriculture, tourism, and industry – elsewhere these are referred to as Page County’s three-legged stool of the economy; and
  • Strengthen the collaboration between the County and towns – the recognition that cooperation is the only way to ensure successful growth. A rule of thumb is that while the towns have concentrated populations and thus require significant infrastructure, they represent only about 30 percent of the county population.
On looking back on this now, an immediate thought springs to mind – where does Fibrowatt fit in with these goals? It potentially would increase the number of jobs, but would sacrifice two or three of these others.

Continuing the review now, with a discussion of tourism in Page County.

Tourism is the economic driver that nobody questions in Page County – but its role in the County creates conflicts with other industries here from time to time, as we saw with the Fibrowatt case. I’ve heard estimates of the number of visitors at SNP as over a million, and a half million at Luray Caverns. The plan acknowledges this with the quote, “Just a few miles in any direction offers visitors a chance to enjoy the abundance of Page County’s natural resources and a range of recreational activities including camping, canoeing, cycling, fishing, golf, hiking, horseback riding, and photography.”

The plan summarizes the impact of tourism, noting expenditures of almost $51 million in 2007, employment of 654 people, and annual payroll of almost $11 million. An occupancy tax generates a budget that is used to promote tourism in the County, guided by the Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Council. Mary and I have stopped by the Luray-Page visitors’ center and can vouch for how friendly and knowledgeable the staff is; these functions are now housed at the restored Luray train station, making visits to the County memorable.

A new feature of the 2008 plan is a summary for each initiative, presented in something of a scorecard format; at least it is easily adaptable to results reporting in the next update. For each major section of the plan, there is a table that outlines objectives, assigns the lead role, sets a priority for each objective, identifies support roles, and lists resources.

There are four objectives for Tourism. The only “Priority A” objective here is:

“The Director of the Economic Development Department will work with the Executive Director of the Chamber to develop reporting formats for the marketing and financial updates that will be submitted to the Board of Supervisors on a regular basis.”

As I mentioned in past posts, I see the opportunities with tourism as low-hanging fruit in the overall context of economic development for Page County. There’s no question about the natural resources available, you have a solid base of visitors to work from, and you can easily monitor the impacts of improvement objectives.

If less than $200K in promotional funds is all it takes to maintain tourism traffic at 1.5 million visitors, tourism revenues at $51 million, and creating payroll of 654 employees, does simply adding $20K create the opportunity to increase everything by 10%? If that investment won't improve the statistics by 10%, how much will the impact be? If it only creates 10 more jobs, that still seems worthwhile – especially when you compare it to the $7-million plus being considered for clover, or for the millions of dollars in subsidies that would have been offered to Fibrowatt in exchange for 25 jobs.

Seems like an easy place to start to me.

There are two more posts in this wrap up of the 2008 Economic Development Plan. The Agriculture sector is the one I will take a look at next, followed by retaining existing businesses.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting that wood pile organized

I got a late start last weekend and had a lot of social and business appointments in Page County, so I didn't have the time I wanted to clean up the new wood pile in the back.  This pile of logs is from one of the three trees we lost during the winter - we lost one of the three trunks of the apple in front, took down one of the old dog woods that was close to the power line, and took down this pine which was leaning and close to the house.

So I had it cut up into sections so I could move it, but the team left some of the logs too big to move with my wheel barrow.  So for now I piled everything up in one place while I get some better equipment.  I've got to get it moved soon though because it is too close to the house...at a minimum it will attract black rat snakes...but it's easy to imagine something venomous taking up residence there, too - a copperhead or a timber rattler...or both.

In the past I've kept these logs so my friend Chris could use them for firewood over in GWNF...but he doesn't camp often enough to use it all.  So this time, I plan to use these logs to line the path out into our wooded back lots.  They can return to the earth in the forest, and while they are doing so we'll have a route to follow out into our woods.  I will keep the smaller logs for him though.

Here is the stump of the dogwood we took down.  A couple of years ago we took two down in the front - I don't like it, but sometimes these older trees are just dangerous and are threatening to come down on their own.  I took this because of the oxidation happening already, and the sap running here - I remember that from the last one.  I have an artist friend who may come and take this stump away...I do plan to feature her work in a post soon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A 24-hour, One Act Theatre Marathon in Luray

The local performing arts group, Performing Arts Luray – link below – put on a very interesting series of one act plays last weekend in their “24-hour One Act Theatre” presentation. The concept here was to assemble a cast of actors, directors, stage crew, and volunteer playwrights to get through the entire creative process and put on a play in 24 hours.

The groups met on Friday night at 7pm, where the teams were assembled. Actors, writers, directors and stage crews were organized into teams, pick-up style. After some introductory conversations, the writers stayed behind to develop their one act plays. In the morning, the others rejoined them, with rehearsals starting immediately after breakfast.

I suppose it was a pretty cathartic experience, working against a strict deadline to make art. But the four plays came off without a hitch, and if the actors had any trouble with their lines – there was no evidence.

The four plays were:

  • The Essay, about a high school essay
  • Tassy Does Tea, about a pitch for a public access cable show
  • Mystic Pleasure Ladies’ Spa and Cleaning Service, about relationships (the set in the photo)
  • Southern Hospitality, about a day in the life of a tourist visitor center

The event drew a great crowd.  All this, with beverages (cash bar), for only $5 in downtown Luray. Plus I got to sit with my friends from Appalachian Outdoors Adventures, and I heard one of them was in a play, but I didn't recognize him in character.  Not bad for a Saturday night.

The link to Performing Arts Luray is here: http://www.performingartsluray.org/


Full Comment Moderation is Engaged

Sorry dear readers, but I have had a third incident of spam comments on the blog.  I will continue to clean those up - they are mainly in posts more than six months old at this point, but I had a couple within the last two weeks. 

So to address it, I have turned on full strength moderation, which means you will see a message after you post letting you know the comment is awaiting approval.  I avoided this for two years - it is only the last six weeks that have been a problem.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Page County EDA 2004 Strategic Plan Recap, Part 2

By far, the driver of the Page County EDA’s 2004 Strategic Plan was “business attraction” – five pages out of a total of 25. That discussion begins “…one key to a sustained economic future will be Page County’s ability to attract new economic development,” before moving into a discussion of how Page competes with other destinations in the state for this kind of investment.

There is an honest assessment of the probability of success for a plan like this. Apparently Page County has traditionally created marketing plans like this without taking the step to explore what industries are suitable, or where high priority investments should be made. This kind of targeting contributes to a higher probability of success. To do it, the community begins by asking itself questions such as:

-What is our niche?
-What types of businesses do we want to attract?
-What should be our strategic priorities: manufacturing, tourism development and promotion, or retail development?

There is a recommendation to take a key step of a chartering a market study and consensus building effort to answer these questions. The goal is to identify the industrial sectors and business types that would be most beneficial in the County. A second goal outlined in this area is an analysis of the types of export opportunities that might exist based on proximity to the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal.

The rest of the goals in this section – invest in better communications infrastructure, and the transportation infrastructure issues keeps coming up in various ways – address getting the table stakes together before being dealt in to the big hand. Coming down to earth, there is no assessment of how likely a small county like this, 30,000 or so people, is going to attract the kind of economic development investment needed to do these things, simply the observation that Page County must do them.

A second goal in the document addresses the needs of existing business retention and growth. This section begins with the statement “…Page County’s diversified economy, based on the four ‘legs’ of manufacturing, tourism, retail and agriculture, provides an excellent foundation for growth.” There are two key ironies to beginning this section with a statement like this:

• Elsewhere in the report is a note about the lost jobs in the manufacturing sector; in fact, this trained but idle labor pool is part of ‘being ready’ for future new business arrivals; and

• This strategic goal merits only a page and a half of the study, and two objectives, compared to the coverage of attracting new businesses and the lamentations about transportation infrastructure.

Addressing the recent – at the time, although they have continued since 2004 – job losses in the manufacturing sector, this plan reports, “…the strength of Page County’s local economy has allowed the County’s agricultural, housing, tourism, and retail sectors to continue to grow…”, partially offsetting the impacts. Then there is the bottom line – the requirement to come to an understanding of the needs of existing businesses.

As a business person, I’ve found that sometimes the highest payback comes from doing just a little more with the investments already made. It’s different from a “good money after bad” concept – if the fundamentals for success are there, sometimes the little extra of a renewed approach, new tools and technology, or simply, new management, are all it takes to break loose profitability. So I guess I would have liked to see more attention paid to this section.

The strategies listed here are good ones, although I wonder if there was ever any follow-up: undertake a survey of local businesses to ascertain needs, problems, and general perceptions of the business climate; and survey supplier locations and products purchased, using the information to ascertain the feasibility of recruiting common suppliers to the region.

This is where I would start – from strengths. The tourism sector, while taking a bit of a shot during the recession, has remained robust. I’ve never seen the parking lot at the Caverns as it was in the summer of 2009, and on one Friday I saw no less than four camping families arriving with the tell-tale rectangular cylinder of a tent strapped onto the luggage racks. They are coming here for recreation – make sure they have the highest quality experience. Outfitters and groceries are complimentary – make sure these are the best they can be (we have great outfitters, so I mainly am talking about the groceries here!).

Then there is agriculture. Family farms have really suffered and have been in a bad state for decades, but lately there are some new approaches that seem to work – I’ll write about them soon. A county agricultural marketing extension could develop a plan that builds on the sustainability and “buy local” trends that are hot in the big cities right now. Page County is ideally located to serve DC, Richmond, Roanoke, Charlottesville, Baltimore, Charleston, WV, and even Philly and Pittsburgh. Targeting grocers like Giant, Whole Foods, Wegman’s, and Harris Teeter with micro-ag, and seasonally fresh crops, seems to me to be an opportunity.

My next Page County EDA posts will look at the 2008 update to the 2004 plan, and then I will look at the 2009 update. The original posts that were the source of this post are here: http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2009/06/page-county-economic-plan-2004.html  

Thanks for reading such a long post.
Cabin Jim

Some Page County EDA Background: The 2004 Strategic Plan

Apologies in advance for those who may remember some of my posts on the Page County economy last year – as the blog begins taking a new look at the role and functions of the EDA, it’s necessary to revisit some of the background, starting with the 2004 Strategic Plan. From those original four posts last June, I am going to summarize into two posts before moving on to the 2008 and 2009 updates to the plan. These background posts will be a little longer than I typically would like, so thanks for staying with me.

This original plan was developed by MarshWitt Associates, based in Roanoke, and funded by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. It starts with a section called "An Economic Vision for Page County" as follows:

"Page County's sustainable high quality of life is the result of a diversified economy based on tourism, industrial development, agriculture, and retail and service industries. Existing jobs are being retained, and new high quality jobs are being created in the County. Job growth is the result of the County's educational system and workforce training partnerships that ensure the available of a trained labor force and the County's investment in water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure that has been planned to accommodate existing and future economic development needs."

When I first wrote on the topic of EDA last year, it seemed to me that much of this vision statement was obsolete, or at least overcome by events. However, the report continues, and is organized around guiding principles and an action plan. The executive summary recommends that the County be proactive in these matters, reviewing the plan and updating it based on changing conditions and priorities.

The report lists six economic development "levers" or economic system components:

• Business attraction
• Existing business retention/growth
• Community infrastructure
• Education and workforce development
• Government economic development programs and services
• Transportation

The Plan describes a "high quality of life" in the county - good land prices and a relatively low cost of living, combined with scenic environment in an area bounded by the National Park, GWNF, and the Guest/Shenandoah River State Park. Looking at the resources that would provide a foundation for executing the plan, there is an appropriate focus on transportation and utility infrastructure, a brief consideration of what low land prices for zoned commercial and industrial properties might mean to development opportunity, and a reference to the qualifications of the Page County work force.

The transportation issue creates some of the most challenging constraints on the Page County economy, and in this summary of past posts, it’s the only one I’ll mention. While the intersection of two US highways in Luray might have served as adequate all the way up to the '50's, once the interstate system was built allowing speedy and fast transportation, much of the traffic moved off of the old two lane roads and onto the new four-laners; in Page County's case, that means across the mountain to I-81, or 30 miles north, to I-66.

Effectively, this eliminates most manufacturing from consideration in an economy such as Page County's; reaching into the dark resources of my economics undergrad I seem to recall location theory that suggested proximity to natural resources is one factor, and proximity to market is the other. With the exception of agricultural and food products, we just don't have a driver that justifies manufacturing business location decisions or further development of a larger scale transportation infrastructure.

We could talk about the rail line that goes through town. There is capacity in that system for Page County commerce, as the trains head up to the inland port in Front Royal.  However, those economic theories emphasize that you don't offload goods from transportation unless you are at the source of production or at the market...suggesting that there are no rail oriented activities to be economically located in the County.

That original June 2009 post went on to look at other issues like electrical infrastructure, the impact of land prices, and goals related to developing the local work force. Tomorrow’s post will take a look at a couple of the economic goals outlined in the 2004 plan.

After reflecting on this for the past year, watching the committment the County made to purchasing Project Clover, and the curious pursuit of the Fibrowatt powerplant, I hope that I am finally getting around to an understanding of the County. As a stakeholder - a property owner and a potential business owner - I am interested in understanding the situation so that I can better find a way to make my own contribution to making positive changes.
A link to the original June post is here: http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2009/06/page-economic-development-plan-review.html

Monday, March 22, 2010

Clarendon Construction - St. Pattie's 2010

Last week I was working in our conference rooms and looked out at the mid-block building when I noticed some unusual activity - they were raising the scaffolding for the masonry elevators.  I happened to be able to catch these two photos while I listened in on a conference call last week.

Look carefully at the scaffolding nearest me in these pictures and you will see a worker on the tower assembling it.  It may not be evident in this picture, but every worker visible working near the edges of the floor plates, and especially the guy on the elevator shaft, are hooked in with safety harness to protect them from fatal falls. 

It's likely a fall would still injure them, mainly from crashing into something after the cabling arrests the fall, but they would not fall all the way to the ground.

With this activity happening, they may be close to removing the crane on this building - the two on the other one have long been dismantled.  I'll keep an eye on that!

Bonus points if you look closely and see the tip of the Washington Monument near where the red brick building extends about the roof line of the new construction.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Page County's EDA: Where'd it go off track?

When I talk to my friends and neighbors in Page County, I often hear stories about how the Economic Development Authority (EDA) has good intentions - lofty goals of improving the overall economic condition of the county and bringing all important jobs here.

I'm also hearing repercussion about the decision to turn down the Fibrowatt proposal.  Senior members of EDA sponsored that organization's proposal, which was brought in direct conflict with the EDA's own strategic goals - sacrificing existing businesses for a new one, does not contribute to sustainable agriculture, and potentially inflicts devastating damage to the area's tourist industry.  It is ironic that they would blame the majority of the county's citizens who came out against the proposal for that plant, for their own failure to attract a suitable prospect.

There is a new website up, there are three new county supervisors, so there is positive energy to create an opportunity to get the organization back on track.  This series of posts, maybe one or two a week, will take a look at some past events - things I have only heard about and frankly don't know the facts of...yet - and compare them to my understanding of EDA's strategic plan. 

Examples of what we'll take a look at are:  the landfill development - why it is considered a drain on the local economy; the purchase of a property for county offices that was found to be undevelopable because it lies in a flood plain; and the Hudson farm purchase. 

I'll start with the letter I wrote last year to the PN&C editor, to refresh my own memory on some of the issues.
Dear Editor:

Although I’m currently a weekender, I’ve been enthusiastically following the county’s economic development discussion and recently reviewed the 2004 and 2008 Strategic Economic Development Plan. Project Clover’s creation of “ready-to-go” sites isn’t the only business concept in the plan. The tourism and sustainable agriculture sectors are given equal importance to the industrial sector; and, in fact, the plan makes retaining existing business a higher priority than attracting new ones: “…business retention is even more critical than business recruitment to the economic viability and growth of the County.”

There are four business retention goals, including: developing educational programs, building partnerships, surveying the needs of these businesses, and identifying companion businesses for future recruitment. The placement of these goals in the plan is significant, appearing as they do before the discussion of any goals related to recruiting new businesses or ready-to-go sites.

The first three goals are given high priority in the 2008 plan, while the last is rated less important. All were to be done with current staff resources – Chamber of Commerce, EDA, or Board of Supervisors resources – and some with current funding. The middle two above – the “relationships building” goal and the existing business survey – require new program funds for implementation; they are unfinished and in roughly the same status they were in the 2004 version of the plan.

These goals have been on the table for five years. With all the valid points being raised on both sides of the land deal, why can’t such a small investment that would contribute to future growth of existing business be justified, especially when the strategic plan makes it a higher priority? Seems to me, it’s a case of low-hanging fruit, where a small funding commitment, along with a better understanding of the tourism and agriculture sectors as possible development investment targets, could be leveraged in a powerful way. I’d love to see a revisit of these items as part of the way forward for the County.

Best regards,
“Cabin Jim”
Stanley and Alexandria

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fibrowatt - some updates

My friends from the Page County Citizens blog posted a video of citizens remarks at last Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meetings.  I've picked it up as an embed above, and here is a link to that blog with the posts about the meeting (I also track them in the bloglist to the right).  It's really great to see these empowered citizens speaking on this topic - all with well-reasoned arguments against the plant.


The video doesn't cover those who spoke in favor of the plant.  There is a lot of back talk about these conversations, including some spin about how in reality the majority at the meeting - those who did not speak included - were in favor of the plant.  I think the elected officials, the supervisors, are wise to this argument, however, and that's why they voted unanimously to say "thanks but no thanks" to the plant.

A few months ago, here on the Hawksbill Cabin blog, we reviewed the strategic plan for Page County's Economic Development Authority (EDA) - both the 2008 update and the 2004 plan.  Even a light reading of those documents is enough to see how far off track the Project Clover land deal, and now the Fibrowatt proposition, have taken this organization from its goals of improving the overall economy in Page County. 

A revisit of those plans - with a comprehensive implementation plan, including goals, objectives, and performance metrics - is what is called for now.  No hand wringing from the EDA on this deal gone wrong, since it was inappropriate and ill advised in the first place.  A business-like, back-to-basics approach.  That's where Page County needs to go from here. 

Can't happen soon enough.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Page County BOS Declines Fibrowatt

From Keith’s blog and other sources I have some news out of the Page County Board of Supervisors’ meeting last night, re: the Fibrowatt Proposal. I’ll just quote Keith’s lead paragraph here:

“By unanimous vote, the Page County Board of Supervisors decided to send a letter to Fibrowatt thanking them for their informational effort, but telling them there was not a place for them in Page County.”

As before, the session was well attended with more than 200 concerned citizens. There was a group that wore stickers saying “I love Page County. Hear my voice” – sentiments that echo a couple of the supervisors’ closing remarks on March 2.

While this effort is not an outright ban of biomass power plants in Page County it does underscore the public opinion that combustion or incineration based plants probably don’t have a role in the county’s future economy.

There were other developments at the meeting, but I don’t have full details so cannot report them at this time.

For convenience, a link to Keith’s post is here: http://lurayva.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/board-says-thanks-but-no-thanks/

2010 NFMT Show - Baltimore

I spent the better part of Tuesday in Baltimore at the National Facilities Management and Technology Conference and Expo - I gave my "A New Leader's Guide to a High-Performing Facilities Organization."  My session was well attended again - I gave this talk last year in Baltimore and again in Las Vegas last September. 
It's a work in progress - as I continue to gain experience as a consultant there are always opportunities to update the material, sometimes the audience makes suggestions that leads to new content, and I like to include the latest developments from industry.  This time I had added some insights I came across from the Software Engineering Institute, which has a maturity model concept for software development.  There were tips that directly translate to the maturity model I use for facilities organizations.

After my talk, I caught a couple of conference sessions, and then went out for lunch with a couple of colleagues who meet up every year at NFMT, with the addition of one of my work colleagues.  We chose an Irish place at the Inner Harbor, near the Constellation.  It was splendid spring weather, and all the lunchers sat outside. 

After lunch, back to the show for a walk around the Expo hall.  Here is a photo of one of the booths - this Smart Car that has been turned into a tiny automotive billboard for ServPro was a highlight.

Later on I ran into the videographers that were working with us at the Las Vegas show, they were filming this year's speakers.  The content we developed in September is post production but there are still a few matters to be resolved before it can be distributed.  I will send an email to get an update and hopefully a link to the two pieces I did with them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 16 Page County BOS Meeting - Agenda includes a discussion on Fibrowatt

I will be traveling on business on Tuesday - up in Baltimore - so won't be able to contribute my usual post in the morning.  There is plenty of Page County and Hawksbill Cabin news to share though, and I will get to it as soon as I can.

One thing I regret is that I will not be able to attend the Page County Board of Supervisors meeting that is scheduled for tomorrow evening, 3/16,  in Stanley.  If you can attend, you should; no matter what your view is about the potential Fibrowatt plant is - be sure your supervisor knows where you stand.  I have spoken to several of them over the last few weeks and they are taking their responsibility on this decision very seriously, and that means they need to hear from their constituents.

The agenda for this meeting can be found at:  http://pagecounty.virginia.gov/files/031610.regular%20meeting.pdf .

Thanks for following this issue on Hawksbill Cabin.  I'll catch up with you again on the other side!

The Weekend Rains

Just checking weather.com this morning, I see that the rain is finally coming to an end in the Valley. The precipitation tally reported there is 1.11 inches of rain Thursday, .83 Friday, .09 Saturday, and .11 Sunday. It was enough to get our little Beaver Run out of its banks. Downstream, at nearby Jordan Hollow Inns and elsewhere until it joined Hawksbill Creek, it churned and crashed noisily as it rushed home to the Shenandoah and eventually the Potomac.

There was localized flooding along the banks of the feeder streams, with pretty significant bank erosion that we saw out in some pastures. An old mill dam near Luray was taken down by debris after being damaged during the winter snow storms – in fact, the warm rains helped melt away much of the snow and that only contributed to the rising streams.  In the upstream shot above you can see the berm where the beaver dam used to be.

Still, some can make the best of it. I saw a pair of mallards over in Beaver Run riding the current. They started from out of the view in the upstream shot, and rode it all the way down to the culvert – hopping out for a rest before flying off. They left the rest of soaking and looking forward to sun again.

Friday, March 12, 2010


The Drive by Truckers is a band that calls themselves “roots rock” – their sound is flavored with references to the southern rock of the ‘70’s and other pop references of that time. Growing up in the south – in Memphis, and in Albany, Georgia – I think I met a bunch of kids like these guys.

My friend Jared had a link to them on his FB profile, so I followed the tip over to iTunes and found a 14 song playlist, from a range of their albums. Mary and I listen to this CD on our drives to the Hawksbill Cabin, or as we are cruising down Ida Loop on the way into town.

Song title

Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife
That Man I Shot
Hell No, I Ain’t Happy
My Sweet Annette
The Day John Henry Died
Carl Perkin’s Cadillac
Never Gonna Change
Lookout Mountain
The Living Bubba
18 Wheels of Love
Steve McQueen
Ronnie and Neal
Zip City
Let There be Rock

Just thinking of this, I think I am going to dig up my Little Feat CD.  I was happy to learn that the DBTs are still recording and even have a new record in the works. You never know where you will find a tip on something you’ll like, eh?

Amazon links:

Drive by Truckers Big To-Do
Little Feat Waiting for Columbus

Thursday, March 11, 2010

As seen on ... Orth's latest message

Talk amongst yourselves.  I give you a topic.  Discuss.

"Americans I have encountered of late exude a sense of fatalism and cynicism whose cause may reflect an empire in decline. What Italian, when reading of Rome, doesn't feel some momentary sense of loss? Likewise what Spaniard or Britton, when viewing current life, doesn't somehow pine for the days when the heaviest lifting done was of the teacup or the hard-spined book, and ships bearing the crown owned the seas? This fate - decline - and associated sense of loss will befall us too, if it has not already, as we have less than our fathers before us."  - Anthony Orth

Spring Thaw Coming - Finally

As we were working on collecting gravel from the various places it had been deposited by the plows and putting it back on the driveway, the weather warmed up and we had a beautiful glimpse of spring in the Valley last weekend. After a nice visit from an artist friend (a future post), we did our chores and then set out to do the Hawksbill Greenway loop in Luray.

Here are a couple of the “signs of spring” we saw around the place. These snow drops appeared out of nowhere on Saturday and by Sunday the pearly flowers were already showing. Then (in the photo above) the snow down in the hollow next to the stream is finally melting away – the melt water from here and upstream generating burbling noises that can be heard up on the brick terrace.

Finally, there is the pile of snow in the backyard, which accumulated from the December and January snows when we cleared the roof after those storms. Now the sun is shining on a good portion of the snow bank during the heat of the day – maybe this could be gone by mid-month. That would be nice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Way Ahead for the Page County Economy

There is a Page County Board of Supervisors meeting on March 16, 2009 – next week. An anticipated moment that may occur at that meeting is a vote on whether to continue the discussions about bringing a Fibrowatt plant to the county. At least I hope this discussion and vote make it onto the agenda – the BOS knows how important this is to the citizens they serve.

For my part here at the Hawksbill Cabin blog, I’ve done enough independent research to come down firmly on the “against” side of the Fibrowatt proposition. While I didn’t set out to advocate, it did turn out that way in the end. The risks of damaging our scenic Valley with the plant, which could affect one of our two key economic engines, tourism, seemed too great.

And because of the geography of our Valley, my sense is that emissions from a proposed plant would not dissipate into the atmosphere, which is the function of a tall stack – instead they would concentrate here in a bathtub-like basin, creating health risks. This may be less of a problem elsewhere, in other topographies, but with the pinching off of this Valley to the south and north, it seems very likely here.

Virginia production farming also would find itself at risk from the presence of this plant. I’ve written about this in two recent posts – calling it the “farmers’ squeeze” because of pressures on farm revenues as well as costs – and I sent a letter to the BOS that included this analysis.  With the plant would come some new economic pressures that these small production farms probably cannot deal with - and therefore might not survive.

I do hope that we are nearing the end of this discussion in Page County, and that talk will now turn to how to address economic in a more proactive way, that is focused on the strengths of the region – tourism and agriculture – balanced with appropriate industry and commerce. I think the answers are in the EDA’s 2004 plan; they are present in the 2008 plan as well, except that somehow the concepts there got mixed up into misguided, almost speculative, land deals, which in turn have led to the desperate need to get a “big” deal like Fibrowatt to justify them.

It is a good moment for the BOS, EDA, and County at large to turn their thoughts to this matter and plan a new way ahead. That’s what I’m hoping for March 16.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where'd my driveway go?

As the snow began to melt a few weeks ago, I started noticing all the gray patches that were piled up near our driveway at the Hawksbill Cabin.  Then I started to recognize the gray stuff as the new gravel that we had put down last fall.  I have to admit that got under my skin a little bit - but also I realized that there wasn't much to be done about it, except to try and recover some of it.

So over the weekend, that was the main chore Mary and I tackled - trying to gather as much stray gravel as we could from the snow banks around, and replacing it on the bare spots - or worse, where various trucks and cars had spun in holes that fill with water and freeze overnight.

I guess I managed to salvage about 10 wheelbarrows full.  It's a pity, some of it is pretty much lost forever.  Something to remember for the next El Nino winter - don't patch the driveway that year! 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fibrowatt: More on the Farmer's "Squeeze"

I don’t recall posting this before, so I wanted to put up a summary of what I’ve learned about using chicken litter for fertilizer. I say summary because I am going to focus on three elements that are a component of chicken litter fertilizer – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, or N, P and K as they are listed in the periodic table.

In Page County and elsewhere in Virginia (and most other poultry producing states, as a matter of fact), chicken litter is used as an early-stage starter fertilizer in fields, especially those that produce animal feeds like corn and soybeans. Each of the three nutrients have their own value, and from the “Latest Scoop” article linked below, we see that on nutrient value alone, litter is worth from $40 to $45 a ton, yet costs in the $30 per ton range, including transportation an spreading. Meanwhile, buying fertilizer to provide these nutrients costs about $110-$130 per acre – per the “Input Costs” article linked below.

Fibrowatt plans to buy the “excess” litter and burn it to produce power. They say that the ash makes a good fertilizer, and a firm was started in close proximity to the Benson, MN plant to process and package the ash for resale to farmers. However, something happens to the ash when it is incinerated – the Nitrogen disappears, and the concentrations of P and K are increased.

From basic biology we learn that Nitrogen is essential to plant life. Chicken litter provides it, but Fibrowatt ash does not. So, if a farmer is forced to move to the ash as a fertilizer source, there will still be a requirement for a second application of N. It’s not efficient due to the double application, and fertilizer costs increase. The end result is more pressure on the farmers both in production costs and very likely in the margins they make from selling their products.

Phosphorus is a nutrient of extreme interest and the subject of much environmental regulation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Soils such as those in much of Virginia do not absorb the nutrient well, and there is a lot of wash off into the streams and rivers. This can be managed to an extent with riparian buffers, and proper timing of fertilizer. However, with a more concentrated application in the ash, it seems like the risks from this nutrient are only made worse, rather than improved.

I will leave aside the discussion about Potassium, except to say that it is present in all living cells, per Wikipedia, and essential to plant life. I am not aware of risks or cost impacts from its use – and welcome comments on the matter if readers are aware of any.

However, as with the input costs and revenue “squeeze” I discussed last week, here is another case where inserting Fibrowatt into the equation won’t create any benefits to farmers. It’s a great irony that the company markets itself to the agricultural sector as a “partner” – in Page County, Fibrowatt is even seen as a potential savior of the poultry industry – yet the economics of their impacts are increased costs and lower products. Their presence threatens the very existence of farming in the communities they are trying to go to!



Comment Moderation is now on -

Readers, I recently started getting about 20 spam comments posted on the blog a day.  They are being left on posts that are more than 2 weeks old, but each morning for the last three I have found the email account where I receive notifications full.  So there will be a few more security measures in place to address this.

I am sorry for the inconvenience and I hope this does not disencourage anyone from posting meaningful comments.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Clarendon Construction March 2010

We'll start the March Clarendon Construction post with this little surprise.  As I went to my usual spot for the phone cam update, I looked down and saw this big hole.  Now, they've been digging up the street alongside my building, really messing up traffic, and finally they reached out across the street and intersection, where they are putting in a manhole for something.  I'm not sure what this conduit is for yet.

Next there is the big building across the street - actually, as I've mentioned before, this is two buildings.  The brick work is going up pretty fast now, and the fenestration is completed on some of the lower floors.  Probably by the summer it will be hard to see any progress on this one.

Here's the mid-block building.  A few weeks back, during the snow, it looked like they had stopped upward progress.  Looks like they will actually have a floor of penthouse space, maybe two floors of it.  They do this in dense urban areas sometimes to allow just a little more sun down to the street level.

I also find the little wooden structure they put up over the equipment on the next door building - where the Hard Times is - pretty interesting.  That should keep construction debris from knocking out the HVAC there and what not.

Chores are Waiting

I've got chores waiting for me out at the Hawksbill Cabin and I am really looking forward to them.  I even sent a note to my buddy Chris - he may come out and join me.

The main thing that I need to take care of is to clean up this log pile.  A few weeks back, we had Ricky Dinges come out and take down the damaged trunk of the apple tree in the front yard, and a gnarly old dogwood (that we hated to see go).  While he was there, we noticed this old pine that was close to an oak, and since we had this situation a couple of years ago - the pine fell - we decided the pine had to come down. 

Ricky took it down for us two weeks ago, and I told him to leave the logs cut to camp wood length and I would take care of it.  So this weekend, I'll be moving it to a pile behind the shed...where I still have quite a bit of this wood left.  Chris wants to use it during weekend camping trips and he's taken about a third of what I had...I guess he isn't camping as much as he needs to.

Here is a view of the roof with all the snow melted off finally - but with the big snow banks behind the house still there.  These are in the shade of the house all day long - it's going to take a couple of weeks for this to melt!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fibrowatt's "Squeeze" on Local Poultry Farmers

I found an article (linked below) in the Winston-Salem, NC paper about Fibrowatt’s failure to negotiate a sales agreement for their power with Progress Energy and Duke Power, the two major utilities in the Carolinas. (Full disclosure: my family owns Progress Energy stock). Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“…the utility companies didn't mention Fibrowatt by name, but indicated that the "single poultry waste" generator proposed prices that would consume a significant amount of the companies' money that they need to buy other types of renewable energy such as solar and wind power.”

Readers will recall that earlier this week I posted an excerpt from a Page County farmer’s analysis of the negative economic impact Fibrowatt could have on poultry operations – basically, because they would seek long-term agreements with poultry farms to buy up used litter, they would seek discounts over current market prices, which would reduce this source of revenue for our farmers. 

This development in the negotiations with the NC power companies means that Fibrowatt will put a lot of pressure on local farmers in order to have better control on its own costs, disregarding the interest of those very farmers - who they also refer to as "partners!"

In fact, the farmer’s letter I posted went on to discuss that the Fibrowatt offer was lower than current market competitive rates, a market that is supported by state and federal level agriculture agencies, which will pay a benefit to farmers outside of Page County for buying and spreading the local litter. The farmer closed his letter with this note:

“As far as poultry growers getting more in terms of total sales dollars for their litter [from Fibrowatt], I don't really see that happening because of the current price of litter. I see a profit margin decrease happening for poultry growers instead of an increase.”

So that is part one of Fibrowatt’s squeeze on poultry farmers – hitting the revenue side of farmers’ litter operations, reducing their total sales dollars. There is also a squeeze on the cost side, which Terry Walmsley discussed in the Page County BOS presentation last Tuesday.

Terry mentioned a couple of things that needed to be done with the litter to ensure that it was a high-quality fuel for the burn process – and that one of the things that is done in the fuel storage room is to mix it with other “biomass” sources, including various raw materials that litter is produced from. In Minnesota, this can include sunflower seed hulls – so you have Fibrowatt actively competing with Minnesota farmers to buy these raw materials from the plant.

It is basic economics that when competition increases on the demand side, prices increase in the short term. Over the longer term, they may level out, but if production is increased to meet the new demand there will be pressure to keep market equilibrium at the higher price, or supplier/producers will switch to other commodities.

Here in Virginia, a large portion of litter comes from wood shavings, which are apparently already in short supply within the Shenandoah Valley region. This product was specifically mentioned as an example of what would be in the mix at the proposed Valley plant.

So once again, Fibrowatt will compete with local poultry farmers for resources, in this case, driving up raw materials costs.

For a company that claims to partner with the poultry, this “squeeze” – raising the costs of inputs and reducing total sales revenues – is an ironic concept. I’ve heard one of the leaders of the local poultry association tout Fibrowatt as a long-term savior of the industry in Page County. It is more likely that these costs will put the smaller operations out of business by making them economically unsustainable!


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

After Action: Page County BOS Meeting on Fibrowatt

I’m a little behind posting these last few days. To my delight, I was very happy to be able to join my Page County friends and neighbors at the Board of Supervisors meeting. By now, local readers have seen coverage of this in the PN&C or talked to someone who was there – so my post will be a formality. I’m including some photos of the crowd in attendance.

There is a group in Page County that formed informally around the conviction that there is no place for a plant like this in the Shenandoah Valley. Their blog is at Page County Citizens - there's a link in my blog list.  Especially as it applies to Page County, I agree with them, as has been evident in my past posts. But this team wants to go further with the idea – that this technology isn’t suited to Virginia – or anywhere for that matter. As I’ve spoken with them, I guess my views on the technology are a bit complicated – but at the end of the day, it’s just a difference of opinion.

They made their point with a booth at the door, and flyers for all who entered. Once the session got started, I think that about 90 percent of those in attendance had on a “No Fibrowatt” sticker or was carrying one of the signs. And that group worked very hard to put a brochure or further information in everybody’s hand. They really were prepared and well mobilized!

All due respect to Terry Walmsley and the Fibrowatt team. Terry presented for more than two hours – I have to do that in my job sometimes and I can’t go that long without a break. Much of the information that he presented is what I summarized in early posts about Fibrowatt, but he added some details here and there as he talked about the plants and the processes.

Once he finished speaking, the supervisors referred to their list of more than 80 questions, asking a few of them that they didn’t think were covered in Terry’s slide show. It seemed like a good example of early due diligence to me, until the closing remarks. That’s when the surprises came out, and three of the supervisors said they weren’t likely to support a plant like this in Page County.

I’ve got a video embedded here, from the group I mention above, that repeats the closing remarks from the supervisors. I’m still surprised to hear this again, but I am also glad about it. And I am very happy that I was part of the meeting last night.

For more coverage, follow the links to the "Page County Citizens", “Luray, VA” or “JKSTech” blogs in the bloglist to the right. The Page County Citizens blog especially has some good photos of the materials they prepared, and is the source of the video embedded here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Note from a Page County Farmer, re: Fibrowatt

The Fibrowatt issue has consumed my blog for a month now – it’s the first time there’s been a topic of this importance to engage with. I’ve tried to reach out to as many stakeholders as I could – including farmers. I was finally able to have a discussion with a couple of Page County farmers; while those conversations have ranged over a variety of concerns and considerations, I’ve summarized some of the material here.

Since I forgot to get permission to identify the correspondent, I am withholding that information, and I have made a few edits to protect the farmer's identity. Overall, this is a well framed discussion not only about farming economics and the potential impact of a Fibrowatt plant, but in general the state of the industry in Page County.

As the Page County BOS prepares to hear the Fibrowatt proposal, this kind of insight should inform any decision they consider.

"As far as the plant goes I am strongly against it. The emissions and the smokestack are of some concern but are not the reason I am against the plant. As a life-long Page County resident, the need for financial stability is the basis of my thought process.

From an agricultural standpoint, the plant stands to be detrimental to the [farming] industry. We use chicken litter to plant our corn because it is an excellent starter fertilizer. Fibrowatt states that they will pay between [$X-$XX]/ton of litter. Currently, poultry litter is above $[XX]/ton because of competition. The competition exists because DEQ will pay $[XX]/ton to haul the litter out of Page County. If Fibrowatt comes in and buys up the remaining litter it will put us and other farmers at a financial disadvantage.

An article in the Southeast Farm Press showed the corn yields in Virginia dropped because of higher fertilizer prices. Assuming the same trend, corn yields in Page County would drop, resulting in corn being sold and reflected in sales dollars that Page County Ag generates. Ironically, our major corn buyers are poultry companies. If poultry companies have to spend more in trucking for corn, thus decreasing their margins, the poultry grower will receive less payment for the chickens they produce. In this scenario, I only see lost sales dollars to the county's most powerful industry.

As far as poultry growers getting more in terms of total sales dollars for their litter, I don't really see that happening because of the current price of litter. I see a profit margin decrease happening for poultry growers instead of an increase. Currently, some poultry growers don't clean out the poultry houses after each flock leaves because of the cost of putting the shavings back in the house. We have one grower who [cleans much less frequently]. If poultry growers don't clean out everytime then Fibrowatt might not have enough litter to burn year round.

During down time Fibrowatt states they will burn wood shavings to compensate. Add to that Page County and surrounding areas have never had abundant sources of shavings. Simple economics says this should increase the cost of shavings to the poultry growers. If Fibrowatt teams up with the poultry companies to force clean outs after each flock leaves this will really cause the cost of shavings to sky rocket. This would cause the overall profitability of the poultry grower to decrease."

Page County Citizens Write Back about Fibrowatt

Last week I sent a note – substantially the same as the “Open Letter to Page County to my Page County Neighbors” linked at the end of this post – to local hospitality and tourism businesses. Page County recently was recognized as “The Cabin Capital of Virginia” and my sense of it is the tourism and hospitality industry would take a significant hit from the presence of a Fibrowatt plant. I worried that it might be a little forward of me to write to them, but I thought it was reasonable to share my opinion, and once they received it, they could (and would) decide for themselves anyway.

To my surprise, I received more than a dozen responses, all but one saying they appreciated the information and that they weren’t inclined to support the Fibrowatt proposal – the one basically a request for more information. I’ve chosen a few of these emails (and disguised the text to protect their anonymity) and now I am posting them below. I thanked each of these and asked them to write letters to their BOS rep.

From B. “I wanted to thank you for a well written letter and bring our concerns to the table. I will write to the supervisors and will reiterate some of your points and my own. We do need help with our tax base and we should be picky and concerned about any industry that wants to come here. There was always a routine for due diligence for every project to be considered but for some strange reason this came out. Something stinks here and I don’t think it’s chicken poop!”

From H. “Thank you for your email, and I'm totally against this project. A few jobs is not worth risking the health of thousands of people in and around Luray/Page County. I was hoping to open a business in Luray within the next year (my products are sold at [another business in Luray] at the moment), and I have been looking for store space, or the possibility of purchasing land to build a proper store...I can tell you that if this project is approved, I will NOT be continuing business in Luray. Further, if there is anything I can do to help fight this incredibly pathetic reason to boost economy, I'd be happy to join in any efforts possible.”

From E. “Thank you so much for this! I agree with your "discussion" and will do everything in my power to block Fibrowatt from coming into our area. [We] were instrumental in blocking a cell tower from being erected on the property that abuts ours and we will do our best to block this issue. “

From H. “Thanks for taking the time to research and sharing of this information. Unfortunately the EDA appears able to do what it wants when it wants, regardless of the opinions of the masses.”

From C. "Thank you Jim, I appreciate your comments. These are all very valid concerns, and ones that I hope the Board will consider in their deliberations on this. Another major area of concern is the amount of water that will be needed for operation. That quantity has not been clearly identified, but based on estimates I’m hearing, it could have a serious impact on water supplies in the area."

From D. “Jim: I read your beautifully constructed letter and I couldn't agree more. I think…the idea will soon die. Thanks for taking your time to do the research and helping to save the beauty and well being of Page County.”


Monday, March 1, 2010

Prospective Views of the Fibrowatt Stack

When I first came to the Valley, I did so after looking down at the town of Luray from Skyland at Shenandoah National Park.  What a lovely place we saw down below, and my wife and I took a drive down to check it out.  Here we are three years later, having restored a unique one-of-a-kind home for a getaway.

It's a community I've come to love and enjoy.  I want what's best for the people there and do everything I can to promote the Valley back here in the DC area.  

I came across some images that a friend put together using Google Earth to mock up the view of this proposed Fibrowatt plant on the Shenandoah Valley region.  I wish I was skilled enough to make similar ones...but reprinting them here to reinforce my point about the potential for devastating impacts on tourism in the Valley.

An Open Letter to Fibrowatt

Today, my note in response to comments I received from Terry Walmsley at Fibrowatt.

As I mentioned privately last week, I appreciate your candor and support in the research. I'm dissappointed now that we'll be calling into question the language I use to describe the potential impacts of industrial uses of land that is currently open farmland and part of the overall character of Page County.

I gave you and Fibrowatt a fair shake and treated the research with an arm's length approach. While I read the press and other side's perspective, I avoided the use of the word "incinerator" to describe the furnace process. I have argued here that maybe Fibrowatt's process is part of a solution that bridges the fossil fuel society we currently are to a sustainable zero impact society of the future.  I have come to a fairly complex conclusion and stand on middle ground about this prospect.

In the end I didn't even draw on the Yadkin River Keeper or the other Fibrowatch material to make my decision. The "alleged" shake-down violation and "alleged" late compliance with self reporting that I read about on your own site led me to the Minnesota permitting document and the list of what's allowed in the plume coming out of the 300-foot stack.

Today, I am posting some marked up images of views so that readers can imagine for themselves the impact a plant here will have on tourism...since Shenandoah National Park attracts 1 million visits annually and Luray Caverns another half million; and we now have 3 triathlons, 2 state level bike races, and quite a few 5 and 10Ks going on in the area,

I think the impact of a 300 foot stack and a plume - no matter how benign one might say that plume is - will have a very serious impact on a County that has no other economic advantage. Have you modeled the economic impact your plant would have on these industries upon its prospective arrival?

Those triathlons would end when groundbreaking occurs. That means several hundred room nights and meals go up in smoke, since the triathletes come for the weekend and enjoy the area before and after their event.

Now, I don't hold you entirely responsible for this potential impact - it is Page County EDA that is trying to change the balance with the discussions you are now having.

I'll stand by my descriptions. I have written my stand against any industrial use of the Project Clover property long before I heard about Fibrowatt. Any industrial use of that site is going to have a devastating impact on the Page County economy - including a Fibrowatt plant.

"Cabin Jim"