Last night I joined about a hundred fellow concerned citizens including councilor-at-large candidate Darek Barcikowski to discuss the future of the Salem Power Plant.
This 63 acre site primely located on Salem’s waterfront has been an eye sore, health hazard and political lightening rod since its beginning. Now, it’s finally been slated for closure in 2014, though the time for celebration has not yet arrived.
The only thing happening in three years is that the plant will stop generating power (it only does so now on a capacity basis i.e. it’s paid to be available for times of peak usage, but does not operate continuously). When the barges laden with coal stop arriving and the smoke stacks no longer spew carbon, the plant and the land it sits on still will be owned by Dominion, a Virginia based energy monolith, with no particular incentive to sell, especially with clean up costs estimated at $100+ million.
Thankfully, Salem’s city leaders have taken a proactive approach to this problem, using a state grant to commission a far reaching study to identify the obstacles and opportunities that the redevelopment of this site pose. There are many of both:
loss of tax revenue: the power plant is currently one of the city’s most significant tax payers with an annual bill of $5 million (down from $10m a few years ago)
site clean-up: cost estimates vary widely, especially since Dominion has not yet let analysts on site, but understanding that asbestos and lead paint were popular building materials when the plant went up and looking at other similar sites, costs will no doubt fall comfortably in the range of $100 million.
zoning: The site is currently zoned industrial, one of 11 designated ports in the state, and falls largely within the Chapter 91 line, each of which carries its own set of restrictions.
The opportunities are endless, really. My favorites identify the port designation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, linking Salem’s future development with its historic maritime supremacy, and creating a new front door for the City to tourists and commercial activity. Similarly, while the old power plant stands as a symbol of old thinking and out-of-date values, any new development should be a showcase for the superlative minds and progressive values that are hallmarks of our region.
All is moot, of course, if that Virginia based energy monolith decides to just padlock the site and deny the city and its citizens any say in the matter.
The civilized and informed dialogue I witnessed last night, though, gives me hope, especially this far in advance, that regulatory levers can be identified or created, private investors wooed, and community action organized.
And that’s a pretty powerful monolith, if you ask me.