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Updated: 09/13/2012 08:00:25AM

Fort Meade seeks grants for EcoGen infrastructure

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Fort Meade is hoping to land some $3 million in grant money to help cover the costs of utility line extensions and roadwork needed if and when U.S. EcoGen moves forward with its alternative fuels plant.

Last fall, the city annexed some 1,100 acres on the west side of U.S. Highway 17 near Jenkins Ford in anticipation of the project which would nearly double the city’s tax base if built.

And, as part of a still-to-be finalized developer’s agreement, the city will have to pay for significant infrastructure improvements that would service the facility that would turn eucalyptus trees into electricity, including an extension of water and sewer lines and an access road to the plant off of the four-lane highway.

At last Tuesday’s city commission meeting, the board approved seeking a state Department of Economic Opportunity grant totaling $2.484,929 to help with the water and sewer line work. City officials said lines currently extend up U.S. 17 as far as the undeveloped Timbers North subdivision.

Consultant Fred Fox said was optimistic the city might get the grant, but than an application would need to be submitted by Oct. 1.

“I think it’s pretty good,” he said about the grant’s chances for approval. “I think you’re in good shape.”

They could apply for that much based on a 71 jobs Fox says will be created by the project, including 35 at the plant itself and another 36 by tree growing operations. The plant needs about 10,000 acres of eucalyptus trees, U.S. EcoGen officials have indicated.

In previous years, meeting that deadline was not usually critical, he said, because that grant money often went unallocated by the deadline. However, the state legislature changed the law last year which now allows for municipalities to apply for a higher grant amount.

He said he was working on a total of four such grants for different municipalities, and that Fort Meade’s application would likely come in with the second highest point total. Grant applications are scored on a point system, with grants having the highest total considered first.

Previously, company officials had pegged the project costs at about $250 million. Fox indicated on Tuesday that the project was now estimated to cost around $350 million.

“The developer feels that’s doable, he can do that,” Fox told commissioners.

The company was hoping to break ground by late spring or summer, but is still working on finalizing its financing. It already has a state-approved contract with Progress Energy which would by the 60 megawatts annually that the plant is projected to produce. They submitted air quality permit applications to the state in April, which got final approval in mid June.

The city has also already gotten approval for a state Department of Transportation grant for $497,000 that will go towards the plant’s access road.

The city is still without a developer’s agreement with U.S. EcoGen, despite the fact that it has been on the city commission meeting agenda for several months this summer. Each time it has been tabled.

“Specifically, we got a redraft of the developer’s agreement with a lot of last minute changes, some of which we don’t believe belong in the agreement,” City Attorney Tom Cloud said last week. “We’re going to sit down and work this out with the parties involved so we have an agreement that everyone can live with.”

City Planner April Brown said she hoped to have a final agreement for commissioners to vote on next month.

“It’s our goal to bring it to you at the Oct. 9 meeting,” Brown said.

At the July 24 meeting, she noted that the agreement still needed to be adjusted.

“It’s just technicalities and little tweaks,” Brown noted. “They want to talk to Mr. Hackle (the land owner) about a few things.”