Editor’s note: Andrew Nemethy is longtime journalist, freelance writer and editor from Calais. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
What do coal energy, college, compost, arts and culture, the creative economy, the Queen City and countless cups of coffee have in common?
The answer: Two hyper-kinetic University of Vermont seniors, Erick Crockenberg and Tad Cooke, who are not only giving college slackers a bad name but disproving the cliched adage that you don’t want to “bite off more than you can chew.”
On the flip side, they’ve more than embraced another adage: Seize an opportunity when you see it, even if opportunity is dubiously defined as a vacant, six-story, red-brick, post-industrial, PCB-laced wasteland behemoth known as Burlington’s 1953 Moran plant – and you’re just 22 years old and asking for way more work than you can imagine, in areas far beyond your expertise.
That’s where Crockenberg and Cooke find themselves, two longtime buddies and sons of Charlotte who are in the forefront of a multi-million-dollar city effort to enhance Burlington’s downtown and waterfront, where the Moran plant sits. Imagine building a rocket you didn’t expect to get off the ground that suddenly launches and takes you on a wild and exhilarating ride while you’re still trying to figure out the controls. That’s sort of what the duo’s life is like today.
“It’s still hard to believe how it all spiraled out of control,” says Crockenberg, who says he and Cooke are a bit dazed and amazed by it all – when they have time to reflect, which is not often.
For Cooke and Crockenberg, getting involved with re-imagining the last big vestige of the Burlington waterfront’s industrial past is a perfectly logical extension of their college careers and youthful ideals – though it’s hardly in any course catalog. How they came to be working on what amounts to an off-campus, unofficial post-grad and doctorate dissertation goes all the way back to their childhood and upbringing.
The two are longtime middle school and high school friends who shared a country upbringing imbued with Vermont values, from gardening and composting to an enjoyment of the outdoors that reflects a strong environmental ethic. After high school at Champlain Valley Union, they hopped in a Subaru wagon and went out West, living out of the back of the car, hitting alpine ski slopes and strengthening both their personal bonds and “passion for the outdoors,” says Crockenberg.
The following year they ended up at UVM and entered the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We got through the first semester of that year and both realized independently that it [the Rubenstein program] wasn’t exactly what we were looking for,” says Crockenberg. Then they “stumbled” on the fact you could self-design your major, he says. That has led the pair on a collegiate path that is equal parts extraordinary, entrepreneurial and innovative, combining facets of science, natural resources, agriculture, planning and grant-writing. This is where compost comes in.
Working together with advisers at UVM, Cooke and Crockenberg – both recognized by the prestigious Morris K. Udall awards for environmental work – got grants to fund research on how to compost readily available materials such as manure, food waste and animal bedding, and then use the heat generated to warm greenhouses in cold seasons. The idea fit their major in food energy and ecological systems and met their goal of doing something relevant, practical and beneficial for agriculture in Vermont, says Cooke.
A bad batch of low-heating compost and an early cold snap brought the experiment at UVM’s horticultural research center in South Burlington to a premature end in late October. Other students have already stepped up to take over and continue the project, and Cooke says, despite the initial failure, the composting project taught them invaluable lessons about collaboration and drawing on local resources for the expertise they lacked.
“It was definitely a rewarding experience,” agrees Crockenberg. “Coming out of that, one of our biggest strengths is to envision these projects and pull people into them.”
People like Charlie Tipper, a Burlington resident who specializes in redevelopment. He had his own plan for the Moran plant and met Cooke at a meeting to air ideas last spring.
“Tad stole the show,” he says. “I knew right off the bat that this was not anyone to be trifled with and whose abilities far exceeded his age.” Tipper and a host of others have since come on board with the duo, whom he describes as “these two guys with just this amazing capacity for work – and smart work.”
All this began innocently with some idle summer shooting-the-breeze up at Battery Park, on a hill overlooking Moran’s derelict hulk. It was the Fourth of July, an appropriate date considering the mental fireworks it launched in Crockenberg’s and Cooke’s brains.
As Cooke puts it, the two had heard “rumblings” about plans by the city to try to enhance the waterfront. Looking down at Moran on that balmy summer day, the “stereotypical light bulb” went on, he says.
In youthful college days, there is no shortage of ideas whose longevity is shorter than the coffee buzz, alcohol or one-night jam sessions that fuel them. But for Crockenberg and Cooke, the Moran plant offered a large, if daunting, canvas on which they could paint their vision of what Vermont and Burlington stood for. Crockenberg says their idea was to recognize and support “the culture, values and history of Burlington,” while showcasing the state’s innovation, artistic bent, environmental values and commitment to renewable energy.
Cooke adds that the Moran plant offered the perfect challenge. “What a chance to highlight some of these things. It’s such an iconic building,” he says.
Fast forward to today, past 50 conceptual proposals, past 29 proposals that city officials winnowed out for more detail, past the nine final waterfront proposals submitted in October, and finally rated and scored by a public team in November. At the top is “Room 9 Redevelopment,” the humorous name Cooke and Crockenberg gave to their project group in “homage” to the late night ferment that occurred in that freshman dorm room.
So there you have it. Two college kids with no architectural or engineering or public planning background somehow raised $19,579 with a Kickstarter campaign to draw in the expertise they need. Then they worked what amounts to virtually a full-time job to develop a plan for Moran, donating their time, all outside of college. And then ended up at the front of the class.
Their proposal, the only one focused exclusively on the Moran site, seeks to create a multi-faceted, multi-purpose civic space that would be a nonprofit. It would include a large arts and civic events venue, coffee shop and restaurant, creative and high-tech spaces, nano-brewery, and be a working showcase for ecological and zero-energy design..
“We were coming to it with nothing to lose,” says Cooke, which made it easy to shoot for the moon. They also knew what they didn’t know, which they turned to their advantage. “We were absolutely unqualified for this,” he says, but that allowed them to adopt a role of high-energy “unqualified project managers” who can pull in and tap into the region’s remarkable expertise.
“We’re kind of leading the charge,” agrees Crockenberg.
What next? Finish school, and hopefully transition to full-time executive directors of the proposal if it is backed by city officials and the mayor in January. The city hopes to send a complex waterfront financing plan to a vote at city meeting in March 2014.
“It’s a wild ride, and we’ll see where it takes us. So far so good,” says Crockenberg.