In Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood, steps from the train tracks crossing Seigle Avenue, a former horse barn is getting a major facelift. In a few months, it’ll open as a community gathering space and innovation hub for small businesses focused on sustainability.
The city-owned project, called the Innovation Barn, is part of a larger effort Charlotte is undertaking to cut down on the amount of trash going to landfills.
The 36,000-square-foot building is intended to be a model for Circular Charlotte, which the city describes as a new economic model designed to produce zero waste.
Experts describe a circular economy initiative as a push to make the city trash-free by turning products like plastic or paper into something useful.
The barn will have co-working space for entrepreneurs focused on upcycling, the process of turning discarded materials like plastic bottles into usable products like clothing or shoes. The facility will have a glass enclosure filled with soldier flies composting waste, and an aquaponic garden stocked plants and catfish.
On the other side of the building, the barn will include a 6,000-square-foot event space with a skyline view and capacity for up to 500 people. The barn will also have a beer garden and a zero-waste restaurant, according to Amy Aussieker, executive director of Envision Charlotte, the nonprofit leading the project.
“Everything is going to be experiential. You’ll be able to walk into any part of the building to watch the soldier flies to see how the composing is going. It’s designed to be open to the public,” Aussieker said. The barn is expected to open next fall, she added.
Aussieker said the barn will be a place that will educate members of the community on circular economy initiatives, she said.
The idea for focusing on a circular economy locally was born out of a city-led trip to the Netherlands in 2017, Aussieker said. Charlotte leaders were inspired by the European Union’s mandate for circular economies.
“(We thought) let’s be the first city in the U.S. to own this and be leaders,” Aussieker said.
Last year, the city of Charlotte worked with Metabolic (an Amsterdam firm that conducts research on sustainability issues) to analyze Charlotte’s waste stream. The firm determined a strategy to help the city become the first in the nation to go “zero waste.” This means that by 2050, 98 percent of all residual materials (waste) would be collected into separate bins and turned into high-value products such as linens and uniforms.
The study found that Charlotte’s 900,000 tons of annual waste represents “a residual market value of $111 million in material value” per year, the city said in an October statement. That figure refers to the value of the waste materials once they’re recycled and turned into something else. The process could result in the creation of 2,000 new jobs, from designing recycling equipment to food waste collection.
“The circular economy ... can not only eliminate negative environmental impacts and create new sources of value, but also be used to bridge the wealth divide and create new pathways for upward mobility in Charlotte,” Metabolic wrote in its report.
The Innovation Barn project is made possible by a $2 million allotment that Charlotte City Council approved last year in the city’s 2018-19 budget. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation will also support the city’s efforts.
For the city, the barn and circular economy efforts are important, but the bigger priority is ensuring that they provide economic mobility opportunities for residents, said Brandi Williams, community affairs manager for Circular Charlotte and the city’s Solid Waste department.
The city is working on building “a collaborative group” that includes workforce development organizations, community leaders and non-profits focused on economic mobility to help create a workforce program around the Barn operations, Williams said.
“This group will help us imagine what training, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities can exist from our work with the Barn,” Williams said.
“The goal is to build pathways for new skills, new technology and new opportunities for small business development. We hope to be able to open the Barn with a program in place that will address at least one of these areas.”
Among the tenants, UNC Charlotte will have classrooms in the new lab, with classes starting this year, the Observer reported last June. UNCC architecture students have already helped design outdoor furniture at the barn.
Another local university that’s taken part is Johnson C. Smith University, whose students designed the aquaponic garden, Aussieker said.
Carolina Urban Lumber, which turns wood from downed trees into products like end tables and kitchen islands, is another tenant coming to the barn.