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ELKHART -- Before they grow the forest, city and county officials want to first see the trees.
A 5-acre piece of land at the corner of Wagner and Sixth streets currently sits barren, but it could help spark the growth of a new crop in Elkhart County.
By the end of spring, the long-abandoned property on the city's south side will be blanketed with 5,000 poplar trees. If all goes well there, large forests could supply wood to the local recreational vehicle and manufactured housing industries more than a decade from now.
"A place like this is not very scenic and kind of depressing," said Jud Isebrands of Wisconsin-based Environmental Forestry Consultants. "But you have a place here that could be filled with beauty and activity."
The flat, unremarkable piece of land caught a rare glimpse of activity Thursday, as Isebrands scouted out the property along with city and county staff. The initiative to turn the site from brown to green involves an array of groups, from public to private to nonprofit.
A PAIR OF TESTS
It all began when Laura Coyne, the county's redevelopment coordinator, was contacted by the Delta Redevelopment Institute. The organization, which provides communities with seed money for sustainability and economic development projects, heard about Elkhart's economic plight and wanted to find a way to help.
After nearly a year of preparation and discussion, Coyne said they settled on the idea of a poplar test site.
The wood is commonly used by RV manufacturers, but is often imported from Italy, which carries a significant added cost.
Eventually, the county could host large groves of poplars, she said, but first they had to see if they could grow here. The search for an ideal location led them to the corner of Wagner and Sixth -- an area which, due to its proximity to the railroad, is believed to contain some contaminants in the soil.
There, the poplars will be put to a second test, to see if they remove those chemicals from the soil, as they are known to do.
Assuming the trees survive the northern Indiana winter and are environmentally-friendly, poplar production could become an area of economic growth here.
"We're not saying we'd want to plant poplars on every property around," Coyne said. "But we've got enough brownfields around here where remediation is needed, it's a great option."
Preparation of the site and planting will take place over the next two months.
Two acres of land will be used for a poplar nursery, which in one to two years will produce six-foot tall whips that can then be used to start groves elsewhere. The other three acres will be planted with two-year-old poplars, which can be harvested after about 10 years.
No city or county dollars are being used on the project. The Elkhart redevelopment commission owns the land, which has been vacant for more than a half-century. DRI is funding the first year of the poplar operation, and officials hope to obtain a grant to cover the next three years of expenses.
Genesis Products Inc., a supplier of primarily wood products to the RV industry, is paying for the initial tree order. If the poplars grow successfully, they'll be used to make trim, paneling or other items.
Jon Helmuth, the company's president, said poplar is an appealing wood due to its light weight, but the importing expense often prevents its regular use. One reason Genesis is supporting the project is to see if it could help grow a sustainable supplier base locally, decreasing costs and lessening the weight of its products.
"What RV company wouldn't want a lighter stick of wood to throw in an RV?" he said. "Right now, it's just the cost."
The city was immediately interested in the project, city brownfield coordinator Denny Correll said. Not only did it provide a use for a problematic property, but it will add a element of green to a very urban area.
"It's going to be so aesthetic," he said, "once these things start growing."
Isebrands, who was brought onto the project by DRI, said poplars could prove to be a trusty alternative crop for the area, instead of relying solely on corn and soybeans.
Not long ago, he said, this type of property would have continued to be an eyesore. Now, it can be productive and useful -- both economically and environmentally.
"The previous way of dealing with these things was to dig all this up and put in a landfill," he said. "That's just shifting a problem. The green way of doing things is not creating a problem, but solving one."
THE POPLAR CHOICE
Why grow poplar trees at a test site in Elkhart and perhaps grow them in larger forests in the future?
* The wood is commonly used for trim and paneling in RVs and mobile homes
* It's clean and light, making it easy to work with or add finishing
* It's fast-growing, needing only about 10 years to grow to a usable size, compared the 20 or 30 years needed for other types
* Hybrid poplar trees absorb volatile organic compounds in soil and ground water, while also removing air pollutants