Marion looks to create sustainable public services development

Eco industrial park would offer alternative fuels for public use

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MARION — From aiming to be a community that diverts most of its trash from landfills to banning nicotine in its parks, Marion promotes itself as being one of the most environmentally friendly and healthy cities in Eastern Iowa.

Now add to its ambitions: building a self-sustaining “eco” industrial park that harnesses solar power, turns waste into rich soil and helps the city — and its residents — switch to renewable or alternative fuels.

“The whole idea is that everything within the park and the development operate in support of one another. It’s a sustainable approach to operations,” said Public Services Director Ryan Miller. “I think we can really do this without spending a lot of money or even no money if we get really lucky.”

The Public Services Department, which handles Marion’s street repair and maintenance, snow and ice control, stormwater and sanitary sewer maintenance and solid waste collection, has experienced increasingly higher demands because of the city’s population growth.

Marion is now exploring options for an expanded, or completely new, facility on 47 acres east of its current location, 195 35th St. The facility would include room for a fleet of 50 to 60 city vehicles that rely on alternative and renewable fuels, saving the city an estimated $300,000 a year, officials said.

The project wouldn’t just be a building, Miller said, but instead a large development that would include a variety of “green” energy sources — from the alternative fuels to an organics diversion program to convert yard waste into fertile soil to buildings powered by solar energy.

The city could possibly partner with a private company for creation and operation of a fueling depot, which would pump compressed natural gas and other alternative fuels and would be open to public use.

The Public Services Department has used compressed natural gas for the last few years, with Miller noting it costs only 34 cents a gallon to run some vehicles. But the department’s 48 vehicles overall can consume $300,000 to $500,000 a year in fuel, Miller said.

The development also wants to explore using electric and hybrid vehicles in the city’s fleet and building an electric charging station.

Miller estimates the cost savings from using alternative fuels would offset a significant portion of the city’s debt service of the facility, if it chooses to go that financing route. But the city also could consider leasing agreements with companies.

City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said that for the fuel depot portion of the project, it would make sense to work with a company that wants to do a bigger project. That would include offering fuel beyond compressed natural gas, such as propane and E85 ethanol for public use.

Through a public-private partnership, the city would select a company with experience running similar facilities that would build the fuel depot and lease it to the city to eventually own it.

Another possibility: Marion could build and own the depot and lease it to a company to run it. In this scenario, the city would issue revenue bonds, which require a dedicated source of revenue. That revenue would be road-use tax money saved from switching to natural compressed gas.

The Public Services Department also will pursue federal and state grants.

“It’s an exciting project for us, and it’s an opportunity not only for us, but it will create opportunities for some of the other local government agencies,” Pluckhahn said. “Schools could see benefits if they decided to switch over the fuel they use for their fleets.”

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