On the edge of Burlington's waterfront, away from the boathouse and the ECHO Lake Aquarium, next to the sailing center, is a three-tiered squat brick building known as the Moran Plant, where a new group of inspired developers is trying to drum up both excitement and money for what they see as the future home of a great community gathering point.
The plant was built in the early 1950s as the city's coal-powered electricity generator. But for the last three decades, it's been abandoned and mostly considered an eyesore. Earlier plans to rehabilitate the space have failed.
Now Erick Crockenberg, Tad Cooke and Charlie Tipper, project founders of New Moran Incorporated, the nonprofit developer of the plant, think they can succeed. VPR joined them for a tour of the plant.
Jane Lindholm: When I stand here, what I'm looking at is really industrial space, clearly, a big old industrial space that is abandoned — or was abandoned, until you guys showed up. And there's a lot of graffiti, which can be kind of interesting. You look across the building and there's an owl. A very stately gray owl staring back at us. What is that?
Tad Cooke: The owl is a part of a series of art that spreads throughout the building. And it all comes from Mary Lacy, who's a Jericho artist ... She came to us with the idea that art would be a way to not only show the building but also bring life to this space that has been by and large vacant for the last 30 years. So this owl here is one of 10 pieces.
Jane Lindholm: And are all of the animals in her installation staring at us so judgmentally?
Tad Cooke: I think the owl, characteristically, may be the most judgmental. The deer is just around the corner from us is fairly gentle and inquisitive. The bat upstairs is keeping a strong watch, as is one of my favorites, which is all the way upstairs: there's falcon giving a stern watch on the building.
Jane Lindholm: So in other words, yes, they are all staring at us.
Tad Cooke: They are all staring at us, but not judgmentally. I think, if anything, supportively.
Jane Lindholm: We're looking at this big, grand, space and very clearly, before this is something that is going to be bringing in the crowds, there's going to need to be some work done. For one thing, you probably need to get rid of all of the holes that people could fall through. So what is it you want to do with this space?
Erick Crockenberg: We are standing in the Moran plant's former Turbine Hall. So these enormous holes that you see in front of us are where the three 10-megawatt steam powered turbines formerly sat. So this is quite literally where the electricity was produced. This is what will become a 1,500 [person]-capacity community event center. We're calling it the the Turbine Hall. We'd be looking directly at a stage right along the east wall here, and then to the west, opening up this entire lower shed. So if you were standing here you'd be looking out at a sunset, watching your favorite band set up, or coming in in the morning to a room full of children, and the farmers market.
Jane Lindholm: That's right, you want to have the winter farmers market here.
Erick Crockenberg: Yes. Concerts, conferences, conventions but also open for things like a winter farmers market or a community banquet or a lecture series.
Jane Lindholm: I actually have a real affinity for spaces that look like this, even as it looks now. I just love old industrial spaces. But I can imagine some people coming in here and just seeing an old abandoned electrical plant and thinking, 'This just would be so much work and so much money.' So what is it that that captivated you that you were seeing that perhaps other people weren't?
Tad Cooke: For us, seeing this space. It's a chance to finally create a year-round destination on the waterfront where there has been none. That in and of itself we think is a real opportunity, but ... this whole industrial space [is] something that doesn't exist in very many, if any, other spaces in Burlington remaining. This particular building has a lot of character.
If we were to take it down and build new we would lose that character, but we would also lose the volume of space. We're 25 feet from Lake Champlain in a 90-foot tall building. And that's something that we can never recreate because of the zoning, because of the setbacks. So for us it's, what an opportunity to keep the character and to repurpose the building and still tell the story in a place that's very unique and very Vermont, in both representing downtown but also the character and the culture of the greater state. And with any luck, create a destination that is loved throughout the state and beyond.
Jane Lindholm: Let's see something else ... OK, so where are we now?
Tad Cooke: We're on the fourth floor, which will be, in the future plan, a very dynamic space, as it was when the plant was in operation. We're looking at three giant upside down pyramids — the bunkers that held the coal that would have filtered down gravity fed from the top of the building two floors above us down below and into the boiler faces directly below us.
Jane Lindholm: They sort of resemble what you might see in a mill, like if you were milling grains. That sort of upside down pyramid.
Tad Cooke: Yes, this looks like the bottom of a silo feed. The other big piece of this floor is actually right outside of us on our right here. And it's the entire roof top of the ceiling of the great hall. And it's a 3,600-square-foot space, four floors up. Right next to the lake. So that's a space that, with the structure that already exists here, we can create an open public roof deck. Waterfront Park is one of the most visited state parks in Vermont and we think that this roof deck can be similarly one of the most visited outdoor public spaces. We have plans for the Vermont Community Garden Network to have roughly a third of the roof with urban garden plots for their education programs, and the remaining two thirds will be open, public, roof deck ... that's also available for rent.
Jane Lindholm: These are a lot of really fabulous plans. But there's a big price tag attached to them. So how are you raising that money, and are you confident you can get all of it?
Tad Cooke: We have a $33.7 million project, and the first big chunk of that was coming from the city of Burlington. Last year ... 70 percent of the voters approved $6.3 million for this building, for the redevelopment of the Moran Plant, as part of a $9.6 million waterfront-wide allocation. The next two chunks of financing, which are almost half of the budget, are both federal tax credit sources. There's a new market tax credit and a historic tax credit. And both of those, like the tax increment financing from the city, are intended to accomplish projects that otherwise would not happen. The fourth piece of our budget is a small section of low-interest debt, and it's one of the really powerful parts of this model. We come out of it with very little debt with an operating model that's financially self-sustaining. And the way we're able to accomplish that between the TIF [Tax Increment Financing] and the tax credits is with a major charitable capital campaign.
Charlie Tipper: So, an $11 million charitable campaign. It's not news to anybody that that is a really ambitious goal. We're really just now starting in earnest to take this on. And we've raised $1.85 million to date and that is really, for all intents and purposes, that's proactive support. We have not been out there beating the bushes in the least. So, at the same time that we are going out and actually actively soliciting support from the public, we're also setting up what we think is going to be the coolest donate-now function that anyone's ever seen: An interactive web-based app.
Jane Lindholm: All right, let's go upstairs. So you've now taken me up to the highest part, I guess, that we can go up to, right? You mentioned earlier that one of the things that you want to preserve is not just the building's framework but really what it represents to the city of Burlington. And people who've been following Moran for the last 20 or 30 years know it mostly as a problem for the city, if anything. But it's really important to the city's history, and it sounds like that's something that you also want to preserve. This was the source of Burlington's electricity in the '50s and it was a very important part of the way Burlington developed, right? So why is that important to preserve as you create a new space and a new life inside this framework?
Charlie Tipper: May we step around the corner? I think it's ... setting the stage. You've done it perfectly with the question, but you've got to see this.
Jane Lindholm: So now we're almost on like a catwalk.
Charlie Tipper: So we call this the Conveyor Hall...Within these four walls is the conveyor belt and the train car that began the coal's descent down into the boilers. We're looking also down into the three bunkers, each of which held five train cars of coal at 55 tons per car. When these bunkers were full it would take 36 hours to burn that quantity of coal. That all equates to 10 train cars, or 550 tons of coal per day. And I know made a huge impression upon me when I finally had a visual understanding of the quantity of coal that we relied on in order to power our homes and businesses in Burlington. So that is just one of the many reasons we feel compelled to preserve this story.
Tad Cooke: The other thing that we can see when we are looking at this train car and looking at the belt beneath it is just on the other side here is actually a couple small piles of wood chips, which is an interesting part of the story in that in 1977, with an in-house conversion, Moran became the first wood-chip power plant in the country. Very much an act of Yankee ingenuity. The team had a proposal for a feasibility study which was well outside of their budget.
And so the superintendent Tom Carr promised his his boys, all of the guys that were working with him, that if they could figure out how to transform one, if not two, of these bunkers into a wood-chip power plant, which was at that point the only remaining feasible source of fuel, that he would give them two weeks paid vacation off the books. So a few weeks later, the plant had been transformed for under $25,000. So in that sense, the plant has been a problem for 30 years in many people's eyes, but prior to that it was immensely innovative plant and it was based not in big money or in large grants but in real local ingenuity. And we think that's a story that's worth telling and preserving as part of this building.
Jane Lindholm: And when you think about 10 years, 15 years, 30 years down the road, and New Moran is settled in and has gone through its growing pains. What role does it have in Burlington?
Erick Crockenberg: I think it should be at the top of everybody's list in coming here. And I think if we are successful employed in creating a place that people love, you know, it should be right at the top of the list right behind Church Street ... or arm-in-arm with Church Street. It should be a defining landmark location in our state, loved by the people here.
Charlie Tipper: We all know in our guts there's this potential for this place to to be an icon of Burlington. It's got the shape and the mass that — whether you think it's beautiful or not — it elicits an opinion, and people remember it. And then you combine that with its location on the waterfront, and we really do think it can be at the top of everyone's lists of Burlington destinations.