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Creating a sustainable community requires more than adopting good environmental practices, says Martin Seaman, a vice president and senior consultant with Resource Recycling Systems, an environmental and engineering firm based in Ann Arbor.

It also means expanding living wage jobs in growing industries; building affordable, quality housing; and promoting health and wellness throughout the population. And, he notes, it requires that such strategies be connected and responsive to one another.

“Genuine sustainability is about reimagining our entire approach to the concept of ‘community’,” said Seaman. “And that requires bringing people from every level and sector to the table.”

Downtown Flint

A new Charles Stewart Mott Foundation-supported collaborative seeks to strengthen the sustainability — including environmental and economic aspects — of the greater Flint community.
Photo: Rick Smith

That model is reflected in a Mott-supported collaborative of residents and leaders from the Foundation’s home community of Genesee County, Mich. The recently launched group, to be formally named by mid-summer, seeks to build momentum on such issues as the development of local alternative energy industries; creation of “green” jobs and career pathways among area employers; and reduction of waste throughout the greater Flint area.

The collaborative includes representatives from such stakeholders as the City of Flint; Flint Community Schools; Genesee County Land Bank; Kettering University; the University of Michigan-Flint; and several area hospitals, nonprofit organizations and businesses.

The Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce, with support of a one-year, $75,000 grant from Mott to the Genesee Area Focus Fund, is coordinating the group. The Fund is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the chamber.

Resource Recycling Systems is helping to establish the collaborative and is providing members with technical and grant writing assistance.

While the group has been in place just a few months, Seaman notes that it is already demonstrating some success. For example, several member organizations have minimized their “carbon footprint” by reducing their use of paper and taking advantage of energy efficient lights and equipment. And some have come together to purchase commonly used supplies in bulk, thereby reducing their individual costs and decreasing the automobile emissions that would otherwise result from multiple deliveries.

Although these are admittedly small changes, Alicia Booker says they are just the first ripples in a sea change taking place in Genesee County. Booker is a member of the collaborative and president and CEO of Career Alliance, a nonprofit workforce development provider in Flint.

She notes that the group is building on other sustainability-related projects underway in Genesee County, such as the development of a biogas processing facility located adjacent to a waste water treatment plant.

The $7 million facility, developed in partnership with Swedish Biogas International (SBI) of Linköping, Sweden, and expected to be operational by 2011, will transform waste materials into biogas, a renewable alternative fuel that can be adapted to heat homes, run electrical turbines and power automobiles. That technology has been used successfully in Sweden for several years.

The Flint project was formally launched in September 2008, with local engineering and development spearheaded by Kettering’s Center for Energy Excellence.

Booker says that the country’s green economy “represents a transformational opportunity for the Flint area, including the diversification of our economic base and the creation of new jobs. And as with any growth strategy, it’s critical to have a comprehensive plan to ensure that growth is both manageable and sustainable. The new collaborative reflects one of many ways in which the Flint community can do things differently, smarter and more efficiently.”

To help inform the group’s work, 12 members will attend a conference in Leksand, Sweden, June 2–5, 2010. Their attendance is supported in part by the Mott grant to the Focus Council.

The conference is coordinated by the Tällberg Foundation — a former Mott grantee — and will provide participants representing more than 50 cities from around the globe with examples of sustainability models that have the potential for addressing both economic and environmental concerns.

The Flint delegation, which includes Booker, Seaman and two Mott program staff, will then travel to Linköping, where they will discuss progress on the Genesee County biogas project with SBI and Swedish government officials. The meeting also will expose members to other sustainability strategies that could be replicated in Flint.

Also among those representing Flint in Sweden will be Nick George, a member of the collaborative and CEO and owner of George Properties, a residential and commercial property rental company based in the Flint suburb of Grand Blanc.

He, like Booker, believes that the Genesee County collaborative offers a unique and important opportunity to help the community shape a new future.

“A hundred years ago, Flint was the engine behind the development of the auto industry,” George said. “Now we have the chance to be that same driving force in alternative energy and sustainability.”

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