A short distance from historic Wilmington, North Carolina are the rural, tidewater communities of New Hanover and Pender Counties. Along Highway 421 you’ll find an aged, municipal wastewater treatment plant that serves the rural communities here. Near the outskirts of the old wastewater plant, you’ll also find the beginnings of a brand new development: the Pender Commerce Park. Slated as an economic development project for the County, the new Commerce Park is not going to be your typical industrial park. This one is drawing in tenants with a new strategy: sustainable water management.
The strategy: replace the old municipal wastewater treatment plant with an innovative new satellite water reclamation system, and make it the centerpiece for the new industrial community. The new plant will serve the existing wastewater management needs of the community, as well as future wastewater produced by the industrial park. More importantly however, the new system – called the Pender WaterHub – will provide more affordable recycled water to future water-intensive tenants of the industrial park.
Over the last 20 years, Pender County has started experiencing significant population growth – doubling in population since 1990. As a result of this growth, the area is looking to attract new industry to create jobs that help sustain, and diversify, the tax base for the community. If the strategy to attract new tenants is successful, the new park, approximately 450 acres in size, should have a significant impact on the overall economy.
Surrounded by industrially zoned parcels, the WaterHub will serve as an anchor to the commerce park. Not many wastewater reclamation plants get that claim to fame. The system, designed by Sustainable Water and McKim & Creed Engineering, is different because the WaterHub utilizes an ecological treatment approach that has a different look, feel and smell when compared to typical activated sludge treatment plants. The overall design includes a 3,000 ft2 greenhouse, which encapsulates hydroponic treatment reactors filled with lush vegetation.
The WaterHub will treat more water to a higher quality, produce less sludge, and mitigate odors in a more compact footprint than the old treatment plant. It is built for modular expansion to grow with community recycled water and wastewater demands. The system will have an initial design capacity of 0.5 MGD, and future capacity will be added in concert with development of the US Highway 421 Corridor. Depending on the rate of continued population growth in the County and build-out of the commerce park, future plant expansions will be added in 3 to 4 MGD increments, up to 11 MGD.
Michael Mack, the director of Pender County Public Utilities, was quoted by the Pender-Topsail Post & Voice saying, “When we finish this plant it will be the first of its kind in the United States. This is cutting-edge technology. We think it will be an asset and attraction to the Commerce Park. When the technology begins to get national press coverage, people are going to want to know about it and be involved,” Mack said. “In the long run, it’s a good strategic plan to have something unique that no one else has.”
Early this month, construction started on the WaterHub itself. Phase one is expected to be fully operational one year from now. Once constructed, Sustainable Water and the County believe the design will change the paradigm of municipal wastewater reclamation. Plant design is meant to incent more of mixed-use feel to the heavy industrial park. At Pender, the greenhouse even contains a conference area for small community gatherings. Jonathan Lanciani, CEO of Sustainable Water, stated: “Our systems are engineered to integrate directly into the community – whether that is greenfield development or an urban retrofit. We design wastewater reclamation plants for where people gather.”
For years, the County’s Department of Planning and Community Development created standards to promote environmentally conscious development. By concentrating heavy industrial tenants with high non-potable water demands into the industrial park, the community is planning more intelligently. This new cluster development will negate the need to expand water service to other parts of town, and minimize the overall distribution requirements of recycled water in the future. Ultimately, this new design will lower the cost of building and maintaining the community water and wastewater system by utilizing more of a micro-grid approach to providing reclaimed water services.
Furthermore, the WaterHub has the potential to create revenue for the County by repurposing and re-selling wastewater (which was formerly discharged to the environment). At the end of the day, the county believes they will offer a competitive advantage by providing a cheap source of reclaimed water to tenants, once the demand for recycled water is further developed.
Only two years after conception, it appears that the strategy to attract tenants may be paying off. Pender Commerce Park already has two tenants. In early 2015, Acme Smoked Fish became the first tenant when they constructed a $30 million dollar fish processing plant that employs approximately 120 people. Just as the County prepared to break ground on the WaterHub this month, Empire Distributors officially joined the park as the second tenant. Between the first two tenants the county has managed to create just over 150 new jobs. At full build-out, planners think the park will bring in around 2,000 new jobs.
The County may be at the forefront of a bigger movement however. This is the move toward smaller, distributed municipal wastewater reclamation systems integrated into the community as opposed to outside of it.