By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
In 2007, I met two business executives from Kansas who were on a mission related to building an energy efficient community in Cumberland County, the likes of which had never been tried before.
Their names were Tom Bray and Jim Schemmel, and the project they had been pursuing since 2004 was named Walden Reserve. These business executives turned entrepreneurs were committed to making their nearly 6,000-acre site about 60 miles from Oak Ridge the world’s first “Deep Green” community.
Fast forward eight years and a slightly reconstituted Walden Reserve team is again pursuing the giant vision, this time using crowdfunding to jump start the endeavor.
When I met Bray and Schemmel, I had just been named Interim Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Technology Transfer and Economic Development directorate. Among many other activities, we were working with the research directorate responsible for energy efficiency research and deployment to find a large scale demonstration partner.
In the Walden Reserve team, we found enthusiastic, committed individuals with the type of large vision that truly excites scientists. A number of articles were written about the dream that Bray and Schemmel had including this one from the Fall 2007 issue of our ORNL newsletter.
When you read the article – start at the bottom of the first page, you will see the founding principles for their development. They included the most energy efficient building materials, energy supply independence, zero discharge water treatment, storm water retention and recycling, significant green space, and a sustainable water supply.
Anyone who remembers the latter half of the 2000s knows what transpired in the housing market as a result of the economic downturn. The impact on developments like Walden Reserve was significant.
“We were ready to go in 2008 when the financial crisis hit,” Schemmel told us last week. It was a challenging couple of years for the Walden Reserve team. The bank that held the note foreclosed on their loan in 2010, and the property was purchased by a “friendly group” from Wisconsin. The acquirer still holds title to the property.
Bray was diagnosed with cancer in a couple of years ago and died 39 days after receiving the diagnosis.
“We put things on hold for a while,” Schemmel said.
Now, more than a decade after announcing the vision, the Walden Reserve concept is back on the front burner, this time with Bray’s two sons – Marcus and Matt – joining Schemmel. They have an updated marketing concept based on the same core principles. They call it The Walden Reserve Deep Green Technology Accelerator.
“Everything about our master plan and vision has only improved,” Schemmel says. Two key aspects caught our attention during our conversation with the trio last week.
Technology accelerators are clearly very popular in the entrepreneurial and commercial sectors, with corporations increasingly helping sponsor them or otherwise becoming engaged.
The Walden Reserve team sees the accelerator as improving the performance and availability of energy independent solutions, buildings, and products by providing facilities and programs that allow residents to interact, learn, and innovate alongside corporate, government, academic organizations, and utility providers.
“Tom and I tried a lot of different options” to avoid losing the property in 2010, Schemmel says. One strategy was to work with manufacturers of building materials and appliances who were themselves struggling during the downturn. That was unsuccessful, but he now has a valuable contact list to mine for the accelerator.
Also, while the initial Walden Reserve strategy was focused on baby boomer retirees, today’s target audience is everyone in search of a deep green home. That demographic includes millennials.
Capital remains a challenge, so Schemmel and the Brays have launched an Indiegogo campaign to jump start the effort. It started April 10, and their 60-day goal is to raise $500,000. The ways in which the capital will be used are outlined on the crowdfunding site.