Proposed Coral Farm at Matanzas High School Raises Tentacles of Possibilities–and Questions
FlaglerLive | September 15, 2010
The Flagler County School Board last week heard a strange proposal–strange in an interesting, even fascinating sense, but also strange in terms of its business proposition: a coral farm that would be built and operated on the Matanzas High School campus, potentially employing 40 people, including students, and sharing a small portion of its profits with the school or the district.
Like the district’s recent lunge for advertising on student uniforms and other previously ad-free school spaces, it’s the sort of proposal school districts and other local governments are increasingly entertaining. The reason: local governments are seeking, sometimes at great risk, to replace tax-dollars the public is no longer willing to contribute with private, but by definition self-interested, dollars. The Flagler County School Board appears willing to parry with that double-edged sword.
Alan Lowe, a resident of Palm Coast since the 1980s, started a coral-reef restoring company in 1997 and completed its first project off the waters of the Isle of Mustique in the winter of 2000 (the island is home to some celebrities). He patented a coral-growing methodology that, if successful, would have considerable implications: coral reefs are routinely damaged by humans and natural causes. (The coral reefs that once enriched the Florida coastline are 97 percent gone, according to Lowe.) A reef that might take 165 years to mature could do so in a matter of a year and a half with Lowe’s method. As he describes it, 700 pieces of coral from the ocean could propagate into 50,000 pieces.
“I made a mistake,” Lowe said, “in having the coral farm in a third world country that was difficult to deal with, written laws that changed daily. So we did one and we came back here.”
Lowe hasn’t applied his technology since. A few years ago he had talks with then-Superintendent Bill Delbrugge about possibly starting a coral farm on a school campus. The tanking economy ended that initiative. Last week, Lowe appeared again before the school board and pitched the proposal, with Matanzas Principal Chris Pryor at his side.
He’s asking the school board to lease him land on the Matanzas High School campus for a nominal fee. He would then build a facility that would have several deep tanks where corals would be grown. “It would be mutually beneficial for the school department as well as for myself to build a coral farm on school property,” Lowe said. The facility would train students in coral husbandry, teach them to maintain the stock, in coral identification. Scuba instruction could yield college credit (though aside from a joking reference by one of the board members, there was no talk of building a swimming poll on campus).
The coral would be grown at that facility. Its primary market, initially, would be the domestic aquarium industry. But corals could have other applications, including pharmaceuticals and, in case of large ecological disasters, reconstructive possibilities. The facility would have two 30-by-30 foot tanks and one 100-foot long, 50-foot wide tank that would be 20 feet deep to grow corals in. The larger tank would grow corals for the home market (the $750 million a year aquarium industry; Lowe’s business plan estimates that there are 13,000 pet stores in the country, 2,000 of which deal in the marine vertebrate industry). The smaller tanks would be used for special projects.
Lowe suggested that the facility could employ up to 40 people at the Matanzas site, and some 400 people off-site, if the operation were to branch out into special projects or include, say, truck drivers who shuttle corals to the airport for shipping.
That, anyway, is the project in the ideal. If it were to work as Lowe pictures it, it would be as innovative as it would be beneficial environmentally and educationally. But it raises questions. And school board members began raising them. Who’d pay for the construction of the facility? Lowe said his company would, without elaborating about the source of his capital, but the permitting would be done through the school district, which retains the rights to the land. What would happen to the facility if it fails? Not clear. Neither is it clear what Matanzas could possibly do with a facility as specific as one that has three deep water tanks in its guts. What about the sightliness of it all, board member Andy Dance asked? That would be dealt with as the facility progresses: Matanzas has land enough to accommodate discretion.
More serious questions began to be Board members began to raise more serious questions, but not yet searchingly: if Lowe’s company were to get a deal with the district, it would set a precedent. Why should a coral-growing company get the benefit of land at taxpayers’ expense–essentially, a public subsidy–but not, say, a cattle-growing one, or a fern-growing one (both of which would have numerous educational applications, especially in a county with deep roots in agriculture: ask Dance) or, for that matter, a bank? The district has no policy or procedures in place to address such “partnerships,” which make appeals to local government’s frequent seductions by the concept of “private public partnerships,” however sketchy and risky the partnership. The seduction in Flagler County may be steamier–and riskier–given the county’s high unemployment rate and the district’s increasingly precarious financial condition.
Lowe himself, beside the venture in the Caribbean, moved to Palm Coast in 1983, in the footsteps of his father, who’d been here since 1979. His father, the late Don Lowe, was a builder. Since 2002, Alan Lowe has owned Oceanus Dive Center, a scuba-diving school. It was located in the Staples shopping center. It moved to Marketplace Court off of Hargrove Grade.