Topics: Immersive Learning, Building Better Communities, Geothermal, College of Architecture and Planning

July 27, 2009

President Jo Ann M. Gora confers with Wil Cashen, CEO of Electric Motors Corp., and Scott Truex (back to camera), associate professor of urban planning, during a Green Summit event July 24 in Wakarusa organized by Ball State students from the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. Cashen is near to securing a $72 million federal loan to reopen a shuttered Elkhart County RV factory to make hybrid truck and RV engines.
WAKARUSA, Ind. -- Horse-drawn buggies still are a popular form of conveyance in this rural part of Elkhart County, one of the largest Amish communities in the United States — and among the nation's hardest hit areas amid the current economic crisis. But if a group of Ball State students and faculty has its way, Wakarusa and the neighboring town of Nappanee soon could become the green capital of America.

During the past 10-week summer semester, the students immersed themselves into the daily lives of residents, business owners and community leaders in Nappanee, a northern Indiana town still recovering from a tornado that ripped through the quiet, rural setting in October 2007. Their goal: Determine if idled industrial capacity in the area, coupled with burgeoning green technologies and manufacturing, can lead to the region's revival and serve as an education and demonstration model for the broader national recovery.

President Obama has stated his administration will invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of bio fuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial-scale renewable energy and otherwise begin transitioning the country toward new green and "smart" technologies that promise to improve efficiency, save costs and benefit the environment.

The plan also calls for investing in America's highly skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers — such as the once RV industry-dominated Nappanee and Wakarusa — to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools needed to pioneer the change starting to sweep an increasingly energy and climate-conscious world.

In September, the students and their faculty collaborator, Scott Truex, associate professor of urban planning, will present a set of formal recommendations based on their 10-week immersive learning experience. Included will be an economic redevelopment plan for green business at two Nappanee industrial parks and a proposal to reuse the abandoned Coppes cabinet factory to establish an education and demonstration laboratory featuring green initiatives and products.

Like an earlier Building Better Communities (BBC) project in Brown County that resulted in the opening of the Arts Industry Business Incubator in Nashville, the laboratory is meant to be not only a place where local green advocates, entrepreneurs and equipment makers can meet to share information and form new partnerships important for the local economy, but also an economic "destination" in its own right, bringing like-minded business and environmental leaders from across Indiana and the country to Nappanee.

Lessons from geothermal

The bold proposal is based on the university's own experience with its geothermal energy project, President Jo Ann M. Gora told the more than 150 people gathered for a July 23 Green Summit in Wakarusa, the conclusion of the first phase of the students' project. Just a month after beginning work in earnest on the nearly wholesale conversion of Ball State's heating and cooling system to geothermal energy, already the university has entertained visitors from other academic institutions as far away as Virginia who are interested in possible updates of their aging, inefficient, expensive and/or coal-fired systems.

The effort "debunks the erroneous assumption that alternative energy projects are always too expensive or impractical," said Gora. "It demonstrates that this is a viable fuel alternative for large-scale projects and a technology that has the potential to spread across the nation, bringing the same benefits to many other cost-conscious businesses and communities. In the process, we also are creating 2,360 direct, indirect, and induced jobs, mostly in the construction and manufacturing sectors."

It is an important point that, Gora insists, both Ball State and Indiana increasingly must emphasize — that such collaborations focus as much on the economic "green" as the environmental.

Fittingly, the summit event took place at the headquarters of Electric Motors Corp. (EMC) in Wakarusa. Company chief executive officer Wil Cashen is pursuing a $72 million federal loan through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program and the application has reached stage three in a four-step review process, according to U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. If finally approved, the loan could help revive a shuttered RV factory, employing up to 1,600 workers assembling hybrid truck and recreational vehicle engines.

Cashen and EMC recently were the subjects of a major profile by

More than merely a display

It seems a tall, if not improbable, order. Can a small town in northern Indiana (2000 population a little more than 6,700) really lead the green revolution in America? For Mickey McGlasson, at least, the answer is "an absolute yes." The junior architecture major from Sullivan, Ind., said he leapt at the opportunity to work on the project because of its "potential for influence" in the community and his own adamant belief "that green living is smart living."

"We do want to re-enforce that this is a working building. This is more than merely a display case. That's what we think will draw people," McGlasson said of the proposed green laboratory, where skilled craftsmen from the area once turned out custom woodwork used in home and building construction around the country.

"This is a building that will function efficiently, effectively off the grid; a building that we can use as a model and as a demonstration of functional systems."

And though still in its early stages and far from conclusive, looking out at the engaged and enthusiastic group of mostly local people attending the recent summit, McGlasson said he felt the project already "has proven that there is potential for real change to not only come but start right here."