Tuscola officials confident they have what it takes the next time a company comes calling

TUSCOLA — Tuscola might have been unsuccessful 4 1/2 years ago attracting the $1 billion-plus FutureGen power plant.

But the pursuit may have a happy ending after all as various investors have shown interest in building an industrial plant there instead.

Tuscola Mayor Dan Kleiss said he was disappointed when he learned in December 2007 that Mattoon had been selected over Tuscola to host the near zero-emissions FutureGen coal plant.

"It was a big letdown for all of us to become a national finalist and not be named No. 1," Kleiss said.

"I was obviously disappointed," said Brian Moody, Tuscola Economic Development Inc. executive director. "I thought we had well made the case that we had the right location and everything in place."

In the end, Mattoon didn't get the power plant, either.

The entire project was revised, with a scaled-down version awarded to Meredosia, about 50 miles west of Springfield.

"It left a bitter taste for the folks of East Central Illinois," Douglas County Engineer Jim Crane said.

The promise of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from a government-private partnership led Tuscola, along with its neighbor to the south, Mattoon, with hopes of economic prosperity and jobs.

But, as projected costs mounted, the Department of Energy changed the scope of the project, deciding to "repower" a 64-year-old Ameren coal power plant in Meredosia rather than build a new plant in Coles County, with the carbon dioxide from that plant piped to a site in Morgan County.

Nevertheless, Tuscola officials believe the experience of going through the FutureGen selection process has left the community in a better position to gain another industrial plant.

"I believe all the attention we received as a finalist will prove to be a plus for us in the long run," Kleiss said. "You never know in this day and age with the Internet when somebody is going to Google you and turn to your city for their next project."

Moody estimates the city spent $100,000 in cash and labor on the Tuscola FutureGen effort, with Douglas County and the county highway department providing approximately $200,000 in labor and in-kind support.

Crane said he and his staff worked 10 to 12 hours a day six or seven days a week on the project, in addition to the county's regular engineering work.

In addition, state commerce officials provided $90,000 in grants, with the state adding an additional $30,000 to $35,000 for title work, Moody said.

While Tuscola is still technically named as an alternative site to receive the sequestered gases from Meredosia, Moody said he hasn't heard anything from the FutureGen organization for five months.

At one point, Tuscola Economic Development Inc. held options for between 500 and 600 acres on 84 parcels of land to be used for FutureGen.

Moody said the final options on the land expired in late 2009.

It turns out that science may be Tuscola's best friend as the city moves forward.

Nearly a half decade after losing the FutureGen sweepstakes to Mattoon, Tuscola continues to respond to investors that are interested in carbon sequestration.

Underground characteristics are important to any projects involving sequestration because they need a safe site for storing millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions for many years.

But studies by the Illinois State Geological Survey in Champaign showed that both Tuscola and Mattoon have layers of shale rock hundreds of feet thick that would likely prevent the carbon dioxide from seeping to the surface in the event of an earthquake.

Since plants like FutureGen that use sequestration propose to pipe carbon dioxide in liquid form a mile underground to an ancient saltwater sea contained by sandstone, Tuscola's thick layers of shale rock made it a safe location for the technology.

Moody said Tuscola's geology and contacts made during the pursuit of FutureGen will be valuable in landing other industrial development projects.

"We continue to get inquiries from energy companies and manufacturing companies," he said.

After Tuscola's FutureGen efforts fell short, Moody said he was approached by Cambridge, Mass.-based GreatPoint Energy.

Moody said GreatPoint Energy was interested in using the Tuscola FutureGen site to build a large-scale coal gasification plant to convert coal into methane (the main component in natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal).

"They were looking to build what could ultimately have been a $2.5 billion project," Moody said.

Tuscola had finished in first place following an 11-month site selection process in 2008 when the American economy intervened, Moody said.

"Right at the end of that time, the economy started to take a nosedive," Moody said. "Within a month, the company's board switched directions because of the economy."

In the end, GreatPoint opted to pursue building a plant in China, Moody said.

Since that time, 10 other companies have approached Moody about developing that specific site.

"We get first passes at projects that I doubt other cities get calls about simply because we have a pile of information on the site, and we can respond quickly," Moody said. "When somebody makes an inquiry, we can respond with a lot of information."

If the American economy turns around in the coming years, Moody said, he would expect more inquiries to come Tuscola's way.

"The economy has definitely put a damper on it," Moody said.

Crane said Douglas County received some secondary benefits from the pursuit of FutureGen.

"We greatly expanded our GIS system and other technology, and that will help the county down the road," Crane said. "The flow rates for the Kaskaksia River (the planned source for FutureGen's water) were studied in immense detail, so we know a lot more about that as well."

Kleiss said Tuscola's access to railroads, Interstate 57 and major natural gas and electric transmission lines will lead to other opportunities for industrial growth.

"We're a transportation hub and a good area," Kleiss said. "The more we get our name out there, I'm all for it."

Moody said he wouldn't be surprised to see private companies some day developing plants using the FutureGen concept.

And, if and when that happens, Moody said Douglas County will be attractive because the city's ability to withstand an earthquake is much higher than many places around the world.

"We are a stable place," Moody said.

This story appeared in print on April 8.

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