As business expansions go, it's relatively modest: $1.5 million, 8,000 square feet, about 15 new jobs.
But for a three-year-old trash-hauling firm that almost won the ultimate prize almost before it was born, then fought for its very survival when a rival bought a facility it depended upon, a proposed recycling and transfer station on the city's southeast side hold the key to growth and the kind of competitiveness its owners say could ultimately save taxpayers money.
“This should allow us to compete for the city's (trash and recycling) contract in the future, but that wasn't the motivation,” said Gregg Walbridge, president of Earth First, which has asked the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals to allow the addition to its facility in the Allen Martin Industrial Park off Meyer Road.
If the approved next month by the BZA and later by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the company would truck waste from its roughly 10,800 residential and commercial customers to the transfer station, where it would loaded into larger trucks for shipment to landfills in Huntington, Jay and Kosciusko counties.
That will do more than allow the company to ship waste more efficiently: Walbridge said it would also put Earth First into compliance with the city's current contract, which requires disposal within a limited radius of Fort Wayne. That helped the only company with a local landfill – National Serv-All – to win the contract, which expires in five years.
Earth First intends to bid at that time, Walbridge said, and other companies using its proposed facilities could do so as well, he said – potentially increasing competition and driving down cost.
In 2009, Earth First submitted the lowest of five bids seeking the city's contract, but Serv-All kept the job by agreeing to extend its then-current rates through 2010. At the time, some doubted the start-up company possessed the equipment or expertise to do the job, despite Walbridge's background as a former Serv-All executive.
The proposed facility would be able to process 300 tons of recycled materials daily, including household goods such as plastics and cardboard and construction materials such as concrete. The materials would then be sold to companies for processing into new products, although Walbridge said Earth First may eventually do that, too.
The transfer station will handle up to 700 tons per day of solid waste. By law, all waste materials must be kept indoors and removed the next day, although some recycled materials may be stored outdoors. The area is zoned industrial, with no homes close by.
Earth First had been a major customer after the Summit Recycling and Transfer station opened on Pontiac Street, but Serv-All eventually bought and closed that facility, reopening it later for recycling only.
The company's current operation handles about 50 trucks per day, a figure Walbridge expects to double after the expansion. But the facility would reduce traffic through downtown Fort Wayne, he added.
The facility would divert about 30,000 tons of recycled materials from the landfills every year by converting waste into value commodities: concrete into aggregate stone, asphalt shingles into coating for roads, and so on. The site will be open for public drop-off, Walbridge said.
“It's been fun,” Walbridge said of his company's often-tumultuous first three years. “We're up to 25 employees and 10 trucks. In this economy, we're very pleased.”
If approved, recycling could start this fall, with transfer operations following next year. The news would pay between $25,000 and $75,000 and Walbridge said the company is not expected to seek tax abatements or other incentives for the project.