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Greening the Asphalt Acres

You’ve heard of net-zero homes and sustainable office buildings. But a green industrial park?

Aug 1, 2008

by Lindsey Norris

The sign on the east side of Hinton has yellowed with years of exposure to sunshine and dust. Every day, thousands of cars travelling the Yellowhead Highway on the way to Jasper or B.C. bypass the town and kick up more grime onto the sign. “Welcome to Hinton,” it reads, and a few steps later, another sign: “Population 10,000.” The sign is a sore point for Hinton’s town council. While other small towns in Alberta have struggled to accommodate growth in the midst of a booming economy, Hinton’s population peaked more than a decade ago and has never actually cracked 10,000.

But just east of the town’s sore point, there’s another sign, this one brand spanking new. It marks a gravel turnoff to the Innovista Eco-Industrial Park. The park doesn’t look like much now, just a lot of construction equipment and a few unfinished roads. When it’s complete, though, Hinton can lay claim to having the first built-from-scratch eco-industrial park in Canada.

“By every measure, we are an industrial town,” says Glenn Taylor, Hinton’s mayor. “Folks look at Hinton as a pulp-mill town and only that. But we can still be a leader, and there’s a new economy emerging, the green economy.” And Taylor is clear: he wants the green economy to do for Hinton what mining, forestry and oil and gas haven’t – that is, diversify the economy and break that 10,000 mark.

“Hinton did some soul-searching a few years ago. The coal mines were closing, oil and gas was in a slowdown, forestry was in upheaval. Housing collapsed; you could buy a condo for $50,000,” says Stephen Hanus, the project manager of Innovista. “We had to decide how a resource town could stay relevant.”

Today, those condos would go for $150,000. But in 2001, the mayor at the time, Ross Risvold, decided an eco-industrial park might be what Hinton needed to avoid a hit every time one of the town’s three sectors suffered a downturn. It sounds plausible. But eco-friendly initiatives and industry have never been easy bedfellows. And unlike other forms of green infrastructure with name recognition – LEED or EnergyStar certified – an eco-industrial park is a relatively unknown phenomenon in Canada.

The first eco-industrial park (EIP) evolved in Kalundborg, Denmark. Over two decades, several large industries within the port city of 20,000 developed waste exchanges. For example, the cooling water from the power station was directed to a fish farm, where the heated water produced better growth conditions for the trout and salmon. The environmental benefits – reduced water waste, fewer emissions – were mere byproducts of the economic savings.

Proponents for today’s EIPs trumpet the environmental benefits, but businesses are sold on the savings: both from the efficiencies in green infrastructure and the exchanges that can be arranged between tenants. “Companies are promoting corporate responsibility hard, and being the first is a big deal,” says Hanus. “But if environmental solutions are going to stick, they must be attainable.” So Hinton, its eye on the grand prize, decided not to capitalize on the “green premium” and listed the lots at market rates, ranging from $225,000 and topping out at $300,000 for a corner lot.

Still, there hasn’t been a stampede of buyers. Of the 11 lots offered for sale in January, by press time one had sold with three sales pending. The municipality received a $2.2-million, low-interest loan and a $3.3-million grant from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities to build the infrastructure necessary for Phase 1; sales will finance Phases 2 and 3.

Hinton isn’t the only community getting in on the game; eco-industrial parks are sprouting all over the province. The Municipality of Wood Buffalo is building one in Fort McMurray. The Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association, based in Fort Saskatchewan, is developing a network similar to the original EIP in Denmark. Spruce Grove is developing new guidelines for its existing industrial parks. In fact, Alberta has so much industrial development that the province has become a “hotbed” for EIPs, says Tracy Casavant, the president of Eco-Industrial Solutions Ltd., the consulting firm for both the Hinton and Fort Mac projects.

Businesses that buy a lot in an EIP must follow certain development guidelines. One day, all the park’s businesses may be able to operate off one solar-powered grid. The immediate goals are more modest. Each business must designate at least one parking space for green vehicles, such as hybrids or Smart cars. The maximum ground cover of any lot is 60%. There will be on-site treatment systems so that waste water can be reclaimed and sold at a lower cost than potable water. Tree removal is limited and must take into account wildlife habitat and migration routes.

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The parks will also accommodate the migratory routes of humans on their lunch breaks. “In Alberta, you have a lot of beautiful towns surrounded by unattractive industrial parks,” says Ed Salmon, the manager of the land services branch in Wood Buffalo. So when the municipality decided to build another park to satiate some of the demand for industrial land in Fort McMurray, he says: “We decided to raise the standard of our gateway areas visually and environmentally. If you look at straight dollars and cents, it doesn’t cost that much more, and yet you gain so much.”

In other words, it wouldn’t hurt if people visiting Fort McMurray for the first time saw a tree-lined park instead of an industrial wasteland. Particularly since the city is now infamous around the globe as the home to the tailings pond that killed 500 ducks.

Aside from the obvious PR advantages of being seen as “green,” other forms of environmentally sensitive infrastructure have proven to be a solid investment. Buildings that are LEED-certified (the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sell for $171 more per square foot than other buildings, according to a recent study by the CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information company in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Green buildings also boast higher occupancy and rental rates.

“Commercial investment firms are looking more and more to green real estate,” Casavant says, “Many banks now have preferential lending instruments for the residential market. It’s only logical that the commercial and industrial markets would be next.”

As Hinton rebrands itself from industrial town to outdoor playground, council has ruled that all municipal buildings will be built to LEED silver standards. They’ve implemented certain architectural themes that require businessess to update their facades and signs when they renovate or rebuild, to create a unified look. Long-term, traffic patterns will be adjusted so highway traffic doesn’t pass through the centre of town.

Council members hope the “greening” of the town may convince Hinton’s shadow population – those people who come to work but not to live – to put down roots. They also hope that businesses will come because their employees (especially the younger ones, those lovers of ATVs, mountain biking, hiking and kayaking) want to recreate in the great outdoors.

In the 1980s, Hinton projected its population would hit 20,000 by the year 2000. Today, the goal is 12,000 by 2012. And municipal leaders hope that putting something back into the landscape, as well as extracting resources from it, will attract people in the technology and environment sectors and, eventually, a post-secondary or research institute.

Other cities that have become hubs for business usually have certain advantages: excellent transportation links, access to markets, a large labour force. Hinton doesn’t have any of those. But it does have bears and mountains and abundant parks. As the rest of Alberta struggles with urban sprawl and the aftershocks of rapid development, Hinton’s scenic parks – of all kinds – may be its saviour. And to those who scoff at the idea that a small industrial town can reposition itself as a leader in green business? Says Hanus: “No one had ever heard of Okotoks before Drake Landing, either. It starts with a vision. And look at Okotoks now.”

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