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SERF Creates Collaborative Space For Sustainability Solutions, Tarpon Springs

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When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast of Mexico in April 2010, Tarpon Springs resident Stephen Hickok, like many coastal residents, had a vision of oil washing up on Tampa Bay's shores.

Hickok, founder of the Tarpon Springs Yacht Services, began thinking of new ways to utilize his business and its direct access to the Gulf of Mexico and more than 16 miles of the Anclote River.

"We were sitting on a location that could help protect the Gulf coast," he says.

Hickok contacted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish & Wildlife to give assistance in case oil began showing up in Pinellas County and offered to designate his business as a hazmat collection center.

A week later Hickok attended a meeting at the Collins Center Foundation with Sustainable Florida and learned the situation was more dire than he thought.

"That's when I decided maybe these people needed help," he says.

What began as a desire to assist in environmental clean-up slowly developed into a multi-faceted 501(c)3 nonprofit that incorporates preservation, education and sustainable technology into one facility in Tarpon Springs.

It's called the Sustainable Environment Research Foundation, or SERF. The facility will lease office, lab and showroom space to businesses devoted to developing advances in renewable energy, water conservation and marine research.

"St. Pete is the marine research hub of Tampa Bay," Owner Representative Tom Mudano says. "We hope to enhance what they're doing and provide an outpost for their research in the northern part of the county."

Its founders anticipate the concentration of different sustainable businesses in a collaborative environment will foster exciting partnerships, creativity and technological advances.

SERF will also designate space for environmentally focused nonprofits, including donated space for those that are unable to afford a lease.

That space will be part of a proposed 36,000-square-foot facility made with sustainable construction methods -- such as capturing and harvesting rainwater for indoor plumbing, geothermal air conditioning, outfitting the roof with solar panels and constructing a portion of the building below ground using the Bauer Foundations' cutter soil mixture (CSM) technology -- that will result in a net zero energy building.

"The concept is to turn this building into one of the most up-to-date, green buildings in the state of Florida," Mudano says. "Possibly the country."

Two Years In The Making

For the last two years Hickok, Mudano and co-founder James Ingles have met with more than 60 organizations and institutions including the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the City of Tarpon Springs to verify their vision and mission are on track.   

Karen Lemmons, economic development manager for the City of Tarpon Springs, is particularly hopeful about the impact SERF could have on creating better jobs in renewable energy and marine industries throughout the region.

"The city is very supportive and looking to assist them in any way we can to see this come to fruition," she says.

Now that SERF has completed a year-long process of attaining its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization from the IRS, it shifts its focus to raising the estimated $10 million necessary to build the facility through grants, private donations and corporate sponsorships.

Board members have also met with St. Pete College to discuss the merits of sustainability training for high school and college students in a hands-on workforce initiative program and are in the process of developing a formalized program, according to Mundano.

When it officially launches, students from the college's sustainability management program and members of the campus Net Impact chapter will have the opportunity to intern at Tampa Bay area companies, such as the Bauer Foundation Corp., in the fields of marine science, engineering and environmental science.

They'll also work on community projects with local organizations in Tarpon Springs, such as the Gro Group -- a club that educates developmentally disabled adults on horticulture and water conservation.

Hickok also hopes to get elementary school students involved in estuary education with the help of Tierra Verde-based nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch.

Gaining Hands-On Experience

Dr. Lynn Grinnell, a professor of sustainability management at St. Pete College, views SERF as a "phenomenal opportunity" for students in the program to gain hands-on experience.

"[Experience] is probably one of the most important things we can provide to our students," Grinnell says.

SPC's sustainability management program offers nine core classes where students can attain skills that will give them a unique edge in a competitive job market, according to Grinnell.

"They can go into a business and say, 'I can save you money in heating, water, fuel and also give you an edge in marketing,' " she says.

But going green isn't simply a marketing tactic anymore. Studies have shown employees work harder for companies that adopt sustainable practices.

A recent report from the University of California Los Angeles and France's University Paris-Dauphine found businesses that incorporate green standards and practices into the workplace have employees who are more motivated, better trained and, as a result, are 16 percent more productive than the average employee.
 
"Every Fortune 500 business out there has a sustainability report now," Grinnell says. "It's more recognized as being essential."

For Hickok, the excitement of integrating sustainable building techniques is a passion that's been with him since his youth.

When Hickok was working as a utility industry manufacturing representative in New York in 1976 he had the opportunity to spend a year building an energy efficient home in the British Virgin Islands.

Upon completion, it featured a 36,000-gallon cistern for collecting rainwater, gravity-fed showers and a wind power generator atop the roof that ran freezers and a home entertainment system. It ingrained the idea that a building could still be fully functioning without shunning alternative methods of energy.

He's hopeful that 4-5 years from now the enhanced research done in the fields of geothermal cooling and renewable energy will be the impetus to make significant change on a large scale.

"We know geothermal air-conditioning isn't for everybody in the U.S.," Hickok says, "but if we can get it in 1 million homes just think of the savings that could provide."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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