Morristown EcoCenter project at crossroads; partners banking on special builder for Bank Street

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Partners in the proposed EcoCenter project are banking on a nonprofit developer to make their dreams come true on Bank Street. But time may be running out at that Morristown location.

The owner of the former car dealership at 55 Bank St. has enlisted a realtor to start showing his 20,000-square-foot facility to other prospective tenants

FOR RENT: The proposed Morristown Ecocenter site is back on the market. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
FOR RENT: The proposed Morristown Ecocenter site is back on the market. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

For the record, Jack McDonald says he still likes the EcoCenter concept and would prefer renting to the partners, who approached him a year ago about transforming his place into a sustainability showcase to include an organic restaurant, commercial kitchen, food hub, business incubator and performance space, capped by a rooftop garden.

“I’m hoping their horse comes in first,” Jack said.

But he feels it’s important to have a Plan B. Taxes, maintenance, insurance and utilities are an ongoing responsibility at the property, which has been vacant since a Mini Cooper dealership left about two years ago.

The EcoCenter partners, who say the economy has hindered their efforts to secure financing, are hoping to craft a deal with Build With Purpose, a nonprofit development and consulting group in Metuchen that builds charter schools and mixed-use projects.

“They have the resources, the credibility and the track record to pull this together,” said Jonathan Cloud, managing partner of the Tipping Point LLC, the group behind the EcoCenter plans.

‘WE NEED TO FERRET IT OUT’

jonathan cloud
Jonathan Cloud has not given up hope of bringing an EcoCenter to Morristown.

Jonathan cited the “worst recession since the Great Depression” as an obstacle. Even in flush times, however, he concedes it might be a challenge finding lenders to underwrite $2.5 million of EcoCenter renovations to a leased building.

“We all engaged in a lot more wishful thinking than, in retrospect, we should have done” at the outset, said Jonathan, who came to the project from the Sustainable Business Incubator that he helped start at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His offshoot has been renamed the Sustainable Business Accelerator.

Build With Purpose knows how to finance projects involving leased facilities, he said, because New Jersey charter schools must rent their facilities.

The development group is recommending a narrower focus for the EcoCenter, said Keith Timko, CEO of Build With Purpose. Forget the rooftop garden for now. Recruit one anchor tenant– a restaurant, preferably. Maybe rent some commercial kitchen- and office space, too.

“It’s more about being practical,” said Keith, who described his firm succinctly: “We do real estate for social change.”

Instead of creating a testament to green building, he said, the EcoCenter partners could “demonstrate what’s possible on a limited budget.”

He thinks the EcoCenter could become a magnet for sustainability-minded people by cobbling together elements from ventures like Hesperides Organica, a Warwick, NY, operation that includes a food co-op and rental kitchens and bakeries; and the Reading Terminal (Philadelphia) and New Amsterdam (New York) food markets.

But is there a demand for this in Morristown?

“We still need to ferret it out,” Keith acknowledged.

An application has been made to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, he said, to fund a marketing study. The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that promotes universal access to healthy food, and the federal Economic Development Administration would be important resources for such a study, he said.

In the meantime, Keith is urging the EcoCenter team to launch a grassroots fund drive on Kickstarter.com.

“If 1,000 people gave $5 to this thing, that resonates with investors,” Keith said. “That’s the kind of statement that can be powerful. You can go to restaurants [that are prospective tenants] and say, ‘The community’s really behind this thing.'”

‘THEY HAVE BROUGHT TOGETHER TREMENDOUS IDEAS’

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty said he still supports the EcoCenter concept.

“I hope they continue to try to raise the money,” the Mayor said. “Ultimately, it would be a very good thing for the town. But they’re running into the same thing that a lot of people are facing in this economic downturn….We’re in a deep recession.”

Jonathan Cloud said he likes the Kickstarter idea. With funding so scarce from traditional sources, organizations are clamoring for “crowd-sourcing” mechanisms to solicit smaller donations from larger numbers of people, said Paul Miller, Morristown’s sustainability coordinator and liaison to the project. Legislation winding through Congress would ease Depression-era federal regulations that limit grassroots fundraising, Paul said.

The partners have had conversations with the Terra Momo Restaurant Group, which owns four restaurants in the Princeton area, about opening another one at the EcoCenter, Paul said. Representatives of Terra Momo could not be reached for comment.

Fourth-grader Justin Smith draws a peace sign on window of proposed Morristown EcoCenter at MG Kids Art Show in May 2011. Sharon Sheridan photo

“Instead of throwing in the towel, we’ve put our heads together, asking what’s realistic, and what can we do to move the project forward,” said Chris Kogler, CEO for the EcoCenter.

Pieces of the project could work at different locations around Morristown, rather than under one roof, he suggested.

Jack McDonald considered becoming a partner in the EcoCenter, but changed his mind over the summer. The prospect of being a landlord and a tenant in the same project was too thorny, he said.

Jack McDonald
Jack McDonald, owner of 55 Bank St., proposed home for a Morristown 'EcoCenter,' in March 2011. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The partners expressed gratitude for Jack’s patience. For his part, Jack still marvels at the community brainstorming sessions (“charrettes”) and events at 55 Bank St. that explored the possibilities earlier this year.

(Disclosure: MorristownGreen.com co-hosted six events there this spring to test the EcoCenter concept.)

“They have brought together tremendous ideas,” Jack said of the partners. “It’s been captivating and rewarding to watch the community consider something that’s good for the community, [something] that’s politically risky.”

In any case, Jack said, he remains intent on finding a tenant who will be good for the town as well as for himself.

“It’s hard to find anything that measures up to the EcoCenter,” he said. “But some [prospective tenants] are still good for the McDonald family and the community.”

 READ MORE ABOUT THE ECO-CENTER

jaylon and jevon jorge
Jaylon and Jevon Jorge of Amor perform at Festival Earth in the proposed Morristown EcoCenter last spring. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
wordplay
Ariya Blow, 8, leads off 'MG Wordplay: Fun With Words' at the proposed Morristown EcoCenter in May. Photo by Hal Crosthwaite
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