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Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:01 am

That was a park when I was your age, kids

Most people in central Illinois have not heard about it, but the FutureGen Alliance is planning to build their 48,000 square foot, $25 – $30 million visitor center in the heart of Community Park in Jacksonville.

I first learned about the project—called the FutureGen Center—back in late July 2013. By the first week of August I had sent a letter expressing my concerns about the location to a City Council Alderman. Assuming that there would be a great deal of public outcry, I eventually stopped worrying about it. I had done my part, I thought, and surely city officials would rethink their plan to part with park property. But many months later, despite backlash from those who did happen to hear about the project, nothing has changed. FutureGen could break ground sometime this summer.

In this op-ed, I provide some background on the entire FutureGen 2.0 project and discuss some problems with the FutureGen Center itself and with siting it in Community Park. I also briefly address the possible benefits of choosing a different location. Finally, I contend that even if the facility is built as planned, FutureGen should seek to contribute something permanent to our community in exchange for permanently altering Community Park.

FutureGen 2.0 is the new and improved version of the failed project that was to be the world’s first near-zero emissions coal plant. The plan is to retrofit a shuttered coal plant in Meredosia by installing a new boiler that will allow for the capture of much of the CO2 emissions. The captured CO2 will then be compressed and piped to Ashland, where it will be sent deep into the earth’s crust. The integration of existing technologies—CO2 capture, compression and transportation, and underground sequestration—and the project’s large scale are what make it the first of its kind.

After a decade of false starts, FutureGen 2.0 is slightly less costly and far less ambitious than before. However, it seems somewhat questionable whether “FutureGen” remains an appropriate name for the enterprise. Even after paring it down, the project has an enormous price tag for a 168-megawatt, retrofitted power plant. And since capturing the emissions will reduce the plant’s total energy output by between 20 and 40 percent, FutureGen’s electricity will come at a high price. If any future power suppliers are actually going to invest in costly “clean” coal, they will need to be just as heavily subsidized as FutureGen is.

Of the $1.6 billion total project cost, the U.S. Department of Energy will contribute one billion taxpayer dollars, made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It is not clear, however, whether the project’s remaining financing is entirely sound. The initial plan was to have the remaining $600 million come entirely from 20 corporate FutureGen partners. Corporate partners started dropping out of the FutureGen project in mid-2009, however, and that approach—which would truly have been a public-private partnership—was eventually scrapped. Even Ameren, which owns the Meredosia coal plant, decided to remove itself from the partnership in November 2011.

Since funding could not be obtained privately, the new plan became to force Illinois residents statewide to foot as much as $150 million annually for the next 20 years through increased electricity rates. In December 2012, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved this new approach with a 3-2 vote in favor of a power purchase agreement which will subsidize FutureGen’s excessive costs by requiring Illinois electricity suppliers to purchase all of the expensive electricity the coal plant generates. This could amount to around a 1.5% increase in electricity rates for all Illinois consumers.

In February 2013, this structural change prompted Exelon to decide not to join FutureGen as a partner despite previously pledging to do so. In explaining the decision, Exelon cited its “long-held position that customers should not be forced to pay enormous above-market charges for electricity.” Having parted ways with FutureGen, Exelon filed an appeal challenging the Commerce Commission’s decision to pass FutureGen’s costs on to consumers. Soon after Exelon’s departure, Caterpillar also chose to remove itself from the FutureGen team and has joined Exelon in challenging the 20-year, statewide rate hike. Given the project’s rocky history, it is not surprising that a February 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service—Congress’ nonpartisan think tank—concluded that “questions remain as to whether or not FutureGen 2.0 will succeed.” And this is the venture that Jacksonville has enthusiastically welcomed, binding our community’s assets to a project with an uncertain future.

In any event, that is simply some background on the entire scope of the FutureGen 2.0 project. Whether or not the FutureGen project as a whole is a good thing is not my focus here. Rather, I am writing to shed light on the impact the project, as now planned, will have on Community Park, because I believe most Jacksonville residents would be against that element of the project if they had been told it was happening.

The FutureGen Center
According to their website, the FutureGen Alliance is a group of “the largest coal producers, coal users, and coal equipment suppliers in the world.” Organized as a nonprofit, the group ostensibly hopes to be active not only in researching and developing greener coal technology—green in more ways than one—but also in educating the public about just how green coal can be when you throw enough taxpayer dollars at it. To this end, the group intends to build the FutureGen Center, which will house the company’s visitor, research, and training facilities.

In addition, the 48,000 square foot space will include a large multipurpose room, an auditorium, and offices for FutureGen and a few other groups, possibly including the Chamber of Commerce, the Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Note that none of these potential FutureGen Center tenants serve purely public functions, but rather are quasi-public entities. Although not yet certain, it is likely that a combined dispatch center for the Jacksonville and South Jacksonville Police Departments will be constructed near the FutureGen Center as well.

FutureGen’s activities in the facility will be tapered down over time, perhaps beginning as soon as eight years after construction, and after 20 years either the City of Jacksonville or Morgan County will own the building outright.

This all sounds great, I suppose—almost like FutureGen is doing a wonderful thing for Jacksonville—and FutureGen’s website is very optimistic about the number of people the facility will attract (because who wouldn’t want to go to a visitor center to learn about a coal plant?) and the amount of community activity that will take place at the facility. But the long-term sustainability of the arrangement has not been addressed nearly enough.

First there is the matter of the usefulness of such a facility in Jacksonville once ownership reverts to the City or County. It is not entirely clear that owning such a space will be socially sustainable in a community of our size. I cannot imagine how a 48,000 square foot building, originally configured for use as an impressive—perhaps excessive—way of showcasing the coal industry’s clean energy pursuits, could possibly be put to efficient, sustainable use by our local government and community.

The idea of using the facility as a performing arts center has been discussed, and I think that would be an excellent addition to Jacksonville. But yet again, the burden will fall largely on the community. The federal stimulus money funding the FutureGen Center can only be spent on construction of an auditorium, not a full-fledged theater. Yet, the hope is to be able to use the facility as an arts center soon after construction is completed, so that even while FutureGen is occupying much of the space it will concurrently serve as an arts center. Therefore, various organizations in the community will need to raise a few million dollars within the coming months to cover the costs above and beyond merely constructing an auditorium, ensuring that the facility will be a suitable home for an arts center. There is still ample time to sort out how exactly the City or County will make the most of using the space now and owning it later on, but it would be better to start worrying—yes, worrying—about that sooner rather than later.

Second, there is the matter of whether or not this plan is financially sustainable for our community. Even if the building ends up serving as a performing arts center, it will have to be wildly successful just to cover the maintenance costs of the $30 million facility once those costs fall solely on the City or the County. Consider, for example, that the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield—an excellent facility that is home to many established organizations and located in an area far more populous than Jacksonville—has, at times, struggled financially since it first opened ten years ago. And the Hoogland is in a renovated Masonic Temple constructed in 1909, not a $30 million architectural wonder.

Regardless of how it ends up being used, if it turns out that the revenue generated by the use of the space is insufficient to cover the building’s overwhelming maintenance expenses, then what would happen? Would real estate taxes have to be increased? Would money have to be siphoned away from School District 117 in order to keep the building from falling into disrepair? If such measures are taken and it still is not enough to sustain the building, will it simply be sold to private hands altogether, thereby finally and permanently divesting the public of access to and use of what was once public parkland?

FutureGen’s website describes the FutureGen Center as “a long-lasting asset to the community,” but I worry that the $30 million facility may in fact belong on the liabilities side of Jacksonville’s balance sheet. No matter where it is built, there are many serious issues that have not been adequately addressed in blessing FutureGen’s construction of their visitor center in our community.

So much for the FutureGen Center itself. At this point, it is worth turning to the crux of this commentary, and the part of this project that I am decidedly against: building the FutureGen Center in the heart of Community Park.

Community Park
Even though few city officials—to say nothing of the residents of Jacksonville—know the precise details of the FutureGen Center’s layout and impact on Community Park, construction could perhaps begin as soon as June. The main reason for siting the building in the middle of a public park seems to be the tight timeline of the entire FutureGen project. If the one billion dollar contribution from the Department of Energy is not fully expended by September 30, 2015, that funding will expire, presumably putting a permanent end to FutureGen 2.0 and halting half-finished, ill-conceived construction projects throughout Morgan County. To exhaust all of the remaining stimulus money before it disappears, FutureGen will need to spend an astounding $50 million per month.

Conforming to FutureGen’s hurried schedule meant finding a suitable piece of land for their visitor center in a matter of weeks. Even though Jacksonville was initially in a very strong bargaining position, it is clear that city officials were willing to cede their leverage and acquiesce to FutureGen’s timeline and terms. They agreed to adopt the fastest, most egregious possible method of handing over the five acres FutureGen requested: let FutureGen construct their building in one of Jacksonville’s public parks.

Siting the building on public parkland meets all six of FutureGen’s criteria for their visitor center:  it is a community resource and a marquee location, is timely to acquire and to develop, and will both fit a massive 48,000 square foot “forward-looking green building” and stimulate ancillary development. I shudder to think what “ancillary development” will look like in Community Park. In any event, money was clearly another reason for choosing Community Park. Jacksonville will continue to own the land, but will lease it at essentially no cost to FutureGen. Furthermore, since Jacksonville already owns the land and since it has not been developed in the past, the transaction costs will be far lower than they would otherwise be (in part because those transaction costs will be absorbed by the City). But with a $30 million building and a $1.6 billion project, why should acquisition and transaction costs associated with five acres of land be of concern? Expensive architects were hired to design the state-of-the-art facility and it sounds like no expense will be spared in constructing it, so why do the people of Jacksonville have to donate the land? Furthermore, why did the City end up being responsible for brokering the deal?

Maybe FutureGen would argue that having city officials so directly involved ensures that the community is deeply connected to the process, and that public-private partnerships ought to work closely with the communities they affect. As I see it though, the arrangement merely evinces FutureGen’s business strategy of passing private costs on to the public. After all, federal tax dollars comprise the majority of the project’s funding. The rest will come from increased electric rates paid by all Illinois electricity consumers. FutureGen will avoid paying local taxes to the tune of perhaps $70,000 since the pipeline itself was granted enterprise zone status, exempting the construction materials from sales tax. And for its coup de grâce, FutureGen will be appropriating public land to further the private interests of the coal industry. To my mind, this final blow goes far beyond simply drawing public funds to support private endeavors, but it does fit nicely into FutureGen’s apparent strategy of leveraging public assets for private purposes.

After the FutureGen Center itself is built, it is likely—although not yet certain—that a combined dispatch center for the Jacksonville and South Jacksonville police departments will constructed nearby. Admittedly, this will tie a public purpose in with the project. But it will also further detract from Community Park, likely ensuring that “ancillary development” will be more desirable long-term than continued park use. To say nothing of the many parking spaces that will be added simply to meet the FutureGen Center’s needs—city and county officials did pass resolutions stating that they expect the visitor center to “attract visitors from around the world” after all—the dispatch center alone will require substantial parking accommodations, eliminating even more green space. Indeed, the sirens and increased traffic resulting from the dispatch center, although serving a public purpose, will do just as much harm to the Park as inviting private actors to develop a significant portion of it.

And it is a significant portion of Community Park. Some have pointed out that we are only talking about five acres of a nearly 60-acre park. Plus, if the state-owned land west of the Park—once home to the Jacksonville Developmental Center—is eventually transferred to the City, the city-owned space comprising Community Park could be around 160 acres. But location matters a lot. The five acres being nominally leased to FutureGen will be in the portion of the Park where the Chamber of Commerce building now stands. This area, within the oval-shaped road that runs through Community Park, is undeniably the heart of the Park. It is in this most beautiful part of Community Park—where historic gazebos, a baseball field, and a playground all exist harmoniously among expansive open spaces and massive trees—that the 48,000 square foot building will be built. Given the size and beauty of the green space that will surround their facility, the folks at FutureGen are probably thrilled—and perhaps also thoroughly surprised—that Jacksonville officials have so enthusiastically agreed to part with public park property.

But there were risks that should have been considered from the very start, and if anything those risks are even greater now. For example, if the Illinois Commerce Commission’s decision to force power suppliers to purchase all of FutureGen’s electricity ends up being overturned, a huge portion of FutureGen’s anticipated budget could vanish, perhaps before construction is complete. That could leave us with an enormous hole in the middle of Community Park, a permanent, unsightly reminder that when something sounds too good to be true, it likely is.

More recently, after a 3D model of the FutureGen Center was furtively shown to a handful of people in mid-April, it has been said that “a lot of” or even “most of” the building will be underground. I remain skeptical. It is a two-story, 48,000 square foot building with a theater that we are talking about after all. Despite the positive response from the project’s proponents who saw the model, it seems inappropriate to keep the design secret until final approval from the Department of Energy is obtained, just weeks before construction will presumably begin. This building that we know so little about will someday be the single most expensive asset—or liability—the people of Jacksonville own, yet no public input has been sought.

Finally, if producing sustainable, green energy is truly FutureGen’s paramount interest, then it seems that the FutureGen Center is an incidental project at best. Even if education is one of FutureGen’s goals, building a successful plant should be enough; if the project is successful, then engineering students in college classrooms throughout the world will learn about it. The real point of the FutureGen Center, it seems, is to “educate” the public and improve coal’s public image at a time when the coal industry seems to be dying out due to both market and societal changes. My point is that a profitable fossil fuel power plant that captures 90% of its carbon emissions will speak for itself. If FutureGen needs to spend $30 million promoting the project to prove the efficacy of their integrative power plant, then we might as well call it a failure at the outset. Far from realizing FutureGen’s stated goals, the FutureGen Center seems to be merely a costly piece of propaganda.

Yet, even though the FutureGen Center is incidental to FutureGen’s ostensible goals, it will have a tremendous and direct impact on Jacksonville both immediately and in the long run. In 50 years we may liken this project to the urban renewal efforts that captivated city officials, but eventually ruined downtown Jacksonville. Maybe we will find ourselves piecing together enough money to raze the disused building and plant some trees in its place. Enjoy Community Park while you can in the meantime, because the FutureGen Center is coming very soon.

Regardless of whose idea it was to site the facility in the heart of Community Park, it is not hard to imagine why FutureGen might be eager to drop their 48,000 square foot building there. Having it in the middle of a beautiful, established green space will reinforce their idea of how green the project is. Surrounded by open spaces and large trees and capped with a green roof, the futuristic building will convey to the public a deep-rooted concern for the environment (never mind the deep-rooted trees in that environment that had to make way for the building). It will offer visitors interested in the underwhelming technology of a retrofitted coal plant—if any there are—to enjoy a lovely view into the park while simultaneously taking in the coal lobby’s set of facts. But would it not be better for FutureGen’s facility to bring beautiful views and expansive green spaces with it, rather than appropriating a space that has belonged to the people of Jacksonville for decades?

Other Possible Locations
No matter where the building goes, it is eventually going to be owned by the City or the County, and it will presumably be used entirely for some public purpose at that time, even if that only means generating rental income for the owner. Turning the facility and its grounds into a city or county park has been discussed. If that is to be the ultimate use of the space, then why not create a new park altogether, rather than sacrificing a current park?

For a negligible portion of FutureGen’s total budget, the group could have acquired five or ten acres adjacent to one of the main routes into town, still well within city limits. If this approach had been taken, the project designers would have had the opportunity to emphasize making the entire space, not just the building itself, a regional attraction. Furthermore, transforming a few acres of farmland or otherwise undeveloped land into a beautiful public space would have done far more to convey an authentic sense of concern for the environment on FutureGen’s part than commandeering a long-held public park will. With pedestrian and bike paths, lots of new trees, picnic areas, and perhaps a few acres of restored prairie, the development could have been a marvel of landscape architecture in its own right, a fitting environment and message to go with the marvel of sustainable building architecture. In this way the project could have created a new public space rather than detracting from an existing one.

Another option would have been to focus on the content of the facility and not the environment surrounding it. With this in mind, one of the many vacant spaces in downtown Jacksonville would have served FutureGen’s purposes nicely—and for far less than $30 million. If FutureGen is only able to attract visitors to the building because they spent $30 million on a flashy facility, then the entire concept is fundamentally flawed. Furthermore, the City has invested a great deal in revitalizing downtown Jacksonville. It sends a mixed message to now ignore the vacant spaces on the square and freely allow millions of dollars to be invested in the further development of Morton Avenue.

I have no strong opinion either way when it comes FutureGen’s overall plan. What I am against is the location chosen for the FutureGen Center and the flawed process that yielded that choice.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of the plan to locate the FutureGen Center in Community Park has been the lack of concern expressed by city officials when Jacksonville residents have voiced their complaints. Even back in July 2013, just days after the location was first made public, their responses have generally been to point to the fast track the project is on and to make it clear that the building is absolutely going in Community Park, that there would be no changing that part of the plan.

Having the FutureGen Center in Community Park may be important to the Mayor, the City Council, and the County Commissioners. That’s fine. But what is important to the people of Jacksonville? When something so fundamentally connected to the people as a public park is at stake, the people should be both informed and listened to well before a final decision is reached. Since many readers likely have not heard much about the FutureGen Center and since any complaints about the plan have been ignored, it is clear that informing and listening to the public were never primary concerns.

Therefore, regardless of the merits of FutureGen 2.0 and the possible benefits of having the FutureGen Center in Community Park, my objection to the project as now planned can be summed up in this way: The notion of having private interests construct their building on their terms in the middle of a public park, simply because they have the money and clout to shut out and shut up the public, flies in the face of my idea of democracy. That may sound a bit lofty, but it really is what has motivated me to write this lengthy piece.

At any rate, it is unlikely that anything will change. Come June or so, construction on the FutureGen Center will commence and Community Park’s landscape will be forever altered. Nothing can set right the planned dispossession of public parkland, even if it was sanctioned by city officials. But it is not too late for the public to get involved. If it becomes clear that the majority of Jacksonville residents are upset with siting the building in Community Park, FutureGen ought to work with city officials to add something to the community to make up for its removal of irreplaceable public land.

The building itself is not enough, as it will likely end up being a liability. And the fleeting construction jobs and handful of permanent jobs will only do so much for Jacksonville. Something lasting and devoted exclusively and permanently to public use would be most appropriate. A recreational path on the city-owned land along Mauvaisterre Creek, for example. Or perhaps a prairie restoration project and groves of new trees with pedestrian and bike paths and picnic areas on city-owned farmland out by Mauvaisterre Lake. There are many possibilities. At the very least, FutureGen should help to fund lighting upgrades and other infrastructure improvements throughout Community Park, lest the five acres touched by Midas outshine the rest of the Park.

No matter how you feel about the FutureGen Center being built in Community Park, if you live in Jacksonville then you really should take a moment to contact the Mayor and your Aldermen to let them know what you think. We have an excellent City Council, but they cannot make informed community decisions without plenty of community feedback. For everybody else, be sure to visit the FutureGen Center once it opens to learn why your electric bill has gone up!

Daniel Coultas is a law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He plans to practice law in Jacksonville, his hometown, after he graduates in May 2015.

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