Cement plant closure opens door to uncertain future

New horizonCement plant closure opens door to uncertain futureLAPORTE – The “Emerald City” is gone.(Colorado) The towering smokestacks and massive steel and concrete structures that made up the imposing Holcim cement plant on the north end of Overland Trail have been torn down, replaced by hills contoured to match the natural lay of the land.All that remains of the landmark manufacturing facility are a couple of abandoned research buildings, a small administrative center, a domed building once used to blend limestone, silos for storing cement and a terminal for loading trucks.Changes at the Holcim site, which is still being used as a cement distribution center, have been dramatic since the plant closed in 2002, said neighbor Tim O’Hara.”We used to sit in the hot tub and look at it all lit up at night,” O’Hara said. “It looked like the Emerald City.”But what could be even more dramatic is how the 3,800-acre property is transformed in the years to come, O’Hara said.It’s prime real estate, he said, and Holcim owns enough water rights to make the area grow.”If you have water and you have land, you rule,” he said.No hurryThe closing of the plant ended 75 years of cement manufacturing and limestone mining on the Holcim property, which stretches more than 5 miles north from its gated entrance.The original plant was built in 1927 by the Ideal Cement Co., which ran the facility for 40 years.Ideal Basic Industries owned and operated the facility from 1967 to 1990, when the company merged with the Dundee Cement Co. to become Holnam Inc.Holnam, a U.S. subsidiary of a Swiss holding company, changed its name to Holcim in 2001.Reclaiming the site’s quarries and the surrounding countryside will be the company’s top priority for the next couple of years, said Gordon Benton, special project manager for Holcim.State regulations give the company five years to reclaim the site, Benton said. The gaping pits will be filled using the conical hills of topsoil lining their edges, and the land will be contoured to meet state reclamation standards.Eventually, the property will be sold and the remaining cement distribution center moved to another location. The company has no timeline for ending its presence at the site, Benton said.”Exiting a piece of property this size takes some time,” he said.The market value of the property depends on many factors, including accessibility, the availability of water and environmental cleanup, if it’s needed, said Russell Beers, a private real estate appraiser in Fort Collins.Much of the property is categorized as agricultural grazing land by the county assessor’s office and has minimal value.But based on the recent purchases of the Soapstone and Red Mountain ranches in the northern part of the county for open space, the entire 3,800-acre property could be worth between $500 to $1,000 per acre, Beers said.Portions of the property that are developable could be worth as much as $15,000 an acre, he said.The LaPorte plant, which produced 450,000 tons of cement a year, was closed in conjunction with the opening of a new plant in Florence capable of producing 2 million tons a year.The property has an estimated 60-year supply of limestone that would help produce high-quality cement, Benton said, but company officials decided to close it for financial reasons.Costs are significantly less at newer manufacturing facilities than older facilities, he said. “At that point, it’s cheaper to supply this area (with cement) by rail or truck.”Demolition of the outdated plant wrapped up about six months ago, Benton said. Some of the plant’s machinery was shipped to other locations; the steel and other metals from its buildings were recycled.With permission from state regulators, about 80,000 tons of concrete from the plant was dumped into one of the site’s mining pits and covered with soil.The plant site was covered and seeded in August. Wet weather helped bring on ground-covering vegetation quicker than anticipated.Stray cattle from nearby farms occasionally wander up to where the plant once stood to nibble on the grass, Benton said.Closing impactsThe closure was announced a year in advance, giving the plant’s 120 employees time to find other work but causing problems for the company in retaining workers until the facility was shut down, Benton said.Some workers transferred to other Holcim sites, some retired and others found jobs with other employers. Prior to closing, the plant had an annual payroll of about $6 million, said Holcim spokesman Tom Chizmadia.”The unemployment situation at first was tough,” said Audrey-Lyn Stockton, a LaPorte resident since 1978. “And (plant) retirees lost their local advocate. But the impact of those issues are pretty far removed now.”Seeing the plant shut down and then dismantled “was a shame,” said Stephen Kropp, of Fort Collins, who worked as an electrician at the plant 31 years.”I know a lot of people who got hurt by it closing down,” he said.Some workers transferred to other Holcim plants, he said, but others have struggled to find work. Some are “living off their 401(k)s,” he said.”There’s no easy way to do something like this,” he said.The financial impact of the plant’s closing and the removal of its buildings and equipment include an $844,145 drop in Holcim’s annual property-tax bill because of the decreased value, said Larimer County Treasurer Myrna Rodenberger.The hit to Larimer County in property taxes was $218,419, according to county records.The dip did not affect the county’s budgeting for the coming year because overall tax collections are expected to be up, said County Manager Frank Lancaster.But anytime a major employer shuts down, there are many ramifications through the community, he said.”That’s a significant amount of money,” Lancaster said.Poudre School District, which saw tax collections for its general fund drop $402,559 because of the closure, will not be affected by the revenue loss, said Jim Sarchet, assistant superintendent of business services. The state will backfill the amount based on its per-pupil funding formula.The $101,314 in property taxes lost toward its capital construction bond will be made up by adjusting the mill levy paid by other district taxpayers, he said.Less measurable is the impact of the plant’s closure on the environment, a thorny issue throughout the years between company officials and area residents.During its final years, the cement plant was monitored by residents as well as health officials concerned with emissions from its coal-fired kiln and the impact on local air quality.”They were watched very closely,” said Jerry Blehm, director of the county’s environmental health services division.In 1998, the plant won a county environmental stewardship award for efforts to reduce the plant’s emissions. A similar award came from the city of Fort Collins in 2000.But also in 2000, the plant failed a routine smokestack test conducted by the state. The resulting $16,000 fine was given to the town of LaPorte for local air-quality-related projects.A proposal to burn hazardous waste at the plant in the early ’90s brought a storm of protest from the community. Holnam officials eventually withdrew the proposal.When plant officials proposed burning untreated waste wood in 2000, residents reacted with suspicion. The concern was that changing the facility’s burning permit to allow wood would open the door to using other fuels, such as old tires. Discarded tires are used by the Holcim plant in Florence.A community committee studying the alternative fuel issue was meeting regularly when the plant closure was announced, putting an end to the committee’s work.Officials monitored the demolition of the plant with an eye toward the release of hazardous materials, such as asbestos, but all appeared to go well, Blehm said.The decommissioned site has no overriding environmental issues aside from the pits left by mining operations, Blehm said. Filling in the quarries could lead to significant amounts of dust kicking up into the air, depending on how the work is conducted, he said.A monitoring station on the campus of Colorado State University since the plant’s cl
osure has recorded no significant changes in air quality, he said. Stations set up by state officials closer to the plant while it was operating also did not detect differences in air quality.”We couldn’t tell when the plant was running and when it was not based on the monitoring stations,” Blehm said.Benton said the company is being careful to follow state environmental regulations as it decommissions the site. Holcim doesn’t want to be in a position of having to come back and clean up past mistakes, he said.”It’s a pretty clean site,” Benton said.What’s nextThe future of the Holcim site has not been determined, company officials say. Local residents say the company has been tight-lipped about its plans.”I think there are a lot of open-ended questions about what’s going to happen there,” Stockton said.Issues of concern to local residents include whether the property could still be used for mining other materials, such as gravel, what will happen to the water the company owns, and whether a portion of the mine should be preserved for historical reasons.If the proposed Glade Reservoir is built north of Ted’s Place, there’s a chance U.S. Highway 287 would be rerouted along the Holcim property. The 170,000-acre-foot reservoir would be larger than Horsetooth Reservoir.Another possibility is portions of the site, especially that which is currently farmland, will be developed with housing, said O’Hara, the neighbor who used to admire the lights from his hot tub.O’Hara, chairman of the LaPorte Area Planning Advisory Committee, said the group has seen no proposals for the Holcim property.Under the property’s current “open” zoning, it could be divided into residential parcels, with an overall density of one unit per 10 acres, said Rob Helmick of the Larimer County Planning Department.Chances are the county would seek “clustering” of homes to preserve open space, O’Hara said.O’Hara said he doubts the market of high-end residences would support that many new homes. In addition, infrastructure such as roads and sewer systems would have to be built to support any development.But he said “it’s only a matter of time” before more growth comes to LaPorte and the cement plant site.”It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “I know developers are very interested in it.” By the numbers Year started – 1927Annual production – 450,000 tonsProperty size – 3,800 acresAnnual payroll at closing (2002) – $6 millionEmployees at closing – 100 to 120 Tax bite The closure of the Holcim cement plant and the removal of most of its buildings has resulted in an $844,145 reduction in annual property tax. Tax entities affected are:Poudre School District – $503,874 (general fund and bond payment)Larimer County – $218,419Poudre Valley Fire Protection District – $90,608Health District of Northern Larimer County – $21,111Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District – $9,742Larimer County Pest Control District – $391 By KEVIN DUGGAN KevinDuggan@coloradoan.com

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