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Student Greenhouse Project Brings New Meaning to Garden Culture

Student Greenhouse project pushes for bigger biodome on campus. (Photo credit: Gennafer Musial)

Between Farm Lane and Shaw Hall there is a parking lot, not much different than any other. But for the past decade, one student environmental group has been pushing for a green shift there—one that is incomparable to any other in campus history.

Going on its tenth year at Michigan State University, the Student Greenhouse Project defines itself by a single goal: to construct a 60-foot tall biodome on campus, creating something close to the effect of an indoor rainforest. The plan calls for a hemispherical dome that would house a year-round tropical environment, complete with a 13-foot waterfall, performance stage, study lounge, and possibly even wildlife like birds and fish. Project members have attempted to leave no stone unturned in the planning, accounting for big issues like site location, as well as small ones like nighttime lighting and hours of operation.

But there’s a lot that’s still uncertain. Though the group has faced its share of hurdles in the past, members insist they are continuing to make progress and will see the structure built in the future, though many vital details, like a projected completion date and who will fund the dome’s roughly $2.5 million construction fee, are still painfully unclear.

A not-so-humble beginning

Though the idea of an on campus biodome may initially seem outlandish to some, the concept is nothing new. The MSU campus was once home to a 22,000 square foot, three-climate greenhouse—about twice the floor space of what the Student Greenhouse project is proposing for the new structure. The uses were also similar to the new plan. The old greenhouse catered to student events like small concerts and poetry readings, as well as tours from elementary schools and year-round visits from community members. Sparrow hospital even used the facility for medical therapy, taking heart patients on health walks through the greenhouse.

But the facility, built in the 1920s’ for the horticulture department, was old and slowly falling apart. In 1997, the administration announced plans to demolish the greenhouse, sparking an outcry from students and community members. MSU administrators agreed to take part a public forum meeting that was arranged by the Student Environmental Action Coalition in an attempt to reach a consensus between the two parties. According to members of the then-future Student Greenhouse Project who attended the meeting, the public response was overwhelming. The room was filled to capacity, and the hallway was flooded with people there to support saving the existing greenhouse.

The result, however, wasn’t what they had hoped. The administration ultimately reached the conclusion that the existing greenhouse was unsalvageable and needed to be demolished, promising to replace it with a new greenhouse structure in the future.

But the question of what to do with the existing plants in the greenhouse still remained. At the time, administrators assured those at the meeting that at least 80 percent of the plants would be saved. But Phil Lamoureux, the Student Greenhouse Project Director who works as a research assistant in Zoology, says he witnessed a far different scene on demolition day.

“It was really the reverse. Twenty percent of the plants were saved, 80 percent were disposed of,” said Lamoureux.

He watched as dozens, possibly hundreds of plants were torn from their habitat, forming mountains in the dumpsters outside.

After the demolition, with the majority of the plants thrown out, the greenhouse space near Old Horticulture was about one tenth the size of what it used to be. These remaining structures are still there to this day. The few salvaged plants were shipped to other buildings around campus, like Agriculture Hall, where plants from the old greenhouse still decorate the building’s atrium. Others were given to away to graduate students within the department and sold to the general public.

For Lamoureux, witnessing the administration go back on their word compelled him to hold the them accountable for the second promise made at the meeting—to eventually construct a replacement for the greenhouse they destroyed.

Moving Forward

Today, the people who flooded the meeting room over a decade ago are nowhere to be found. Lamoureux is the only one left. At the Student Greenhouse Project’s first meeting this semester only two new freshmen came, bringing the attendance to a grand total of six, including Lamoureux. Besides those two, the other four are longstanding officers who brunt all of the project’s heavy lifting.

But ten years without any tangible results means members must have a great deal of faith, and even more stamina. One of the new freshmen openly expressed concern about working on the project her entire undergraduate career without seeing the end result.

“You mean I could work four years at this and not see anything done?” she asked the club leaders.

According to Vice President Hannah Sumroo, a landscape architecture junior, it’s a response they hear all too often.

It’s definitely not an instant-gratification kind of group,” Sumroo said. “Usually when they join any sort of activist group, they want to see results within the four years or so that they’re here.”

While low membership is an issue that the Project continually struggles with, it’s not all that unusual. Across the board campus environmental organizations have a relatively low turnout in comparison to other groups. Eco President Kathleen Peshek, a zoology senior, says the reason is simple: it’s easy to get people excited about a cause, but almost impossible to get them to donate enough time and energy to see results.

“Finding people to get active on the issues in hard to come by,” she said. “Every environmental group has trouble with that.”

Eco, which focuses mostly on green education and sustainability, is also celebrating its decade anniversary this year. Though they now focus on awareness events and fundraising for nationally based causes, in its early days the club played a vital role in the birth of the first campus recycling program, which later matured into more comprehensive programs like the “Be Spartan Green” initiative.

In contrast to the Student Greenhouse Project, they boast one of the highest membership rates of any campus environmental group. About 20 members consistently attend meetings, while around 10 usually help with projects. Both Peshek and Lamoureux cite this difference in the nature of the work between the two organizations.

“You see the benefits of what you’re doing and I’m sure that keeps people in,” said Peshek.

The short life span and more manageable targets of Eco projects have greater potential to keep up moral among club members, and the variety of projects tend to hold their attention more easily. The variety also appeals to a wider base of students, whereas Student Greenhouse Project members say it takes a specific kind of environmentalist to embrace their dynamic.

“Over the years I’m very surprised to find the people who have church background and so forth have a long view of things,” Lamoureux said. “It’s kind of surprising because when it comes to the liberal left environmental folks, we get some of the more traditional folks in a lot of cases.”

While the Student Greenhouse Project seeks out those who have a long-term vision, Eco thrives on members who strike a faster paced chord.

“We provide activists an opportunity to really be active,” said Peshek.

Not having enough members can hurt an organization’s effectiveness, especially if they are a cause looking for action. Despite his adamancy that the project is still progressing to some extent, Lamoureux admits things might move faster if they had greater numbers.

“If we had 50-100 active people the university would be wowed,” he said. “The administration has their finger on that pulse.”

Peshek agrees. “I think student support is a huge thing,” she said. “In terms of Eco I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in the past.”

The small circle of Student Greenhouse Project members are making due with what the have, trying to accomplish their goal almost completely through the inner workings of the administration. This approach has proved to at least be moving the project along, even if just baby steps at a time.

(Photo credit: Gennafer Musial)

The group’s current focus, though it has been moving at a snail’s pace, is one of their most important steps forward. After meeting with project members, President Simon mandated that the club formulate a feasibility survey in order to scientifically determine the most important uses of the greenhouse. It’s an ongoing project, and members are continuing to hand them out to faculty members to give feedback on how the plan could help the curriculum and students in their respective department. A side bonus of the survey, besides advancing their mission on paper, is that it inherently raises awareness. The fact the president mandated it also plays a role in convincing people that the group’s goal is actually attainable.

The more people think it will happen, the more likely they will be to support it,” said Sumroo. “It’s like a domino effect.”

The faculty evaluation is just the tip of the iceberg. After those are done, they plan to spread the survey to relevant businesses and non-profit organizations they see as potential donors. This will allow them to provide input on the dome’s design before potentially extending an offer. Endorsements from a plethora of businesses and non-profits would also build the Project’s credentials in the eyes of corporations who might be interested in making a large donation. Theoretically, this outward spiral of the feasibility survey would eventually result in a consensus within the university and among donors funding the construction. With this support they Project’s could give their final pitch to the MSU Board of Trustees, who hold power to authorize the dome’s construction.

But so far the spiral has moved at a crawl, as it has taken project members months, sometimes over a year, to land meetings with administrators. The first meeting with President Simon happened five years ago, and after that it took over a year to meet with other necessary administrators before they could begin the survey. Since then, the faculty data has been slowly accumulating for the last three years. It is not clear when enough will be compiled, or when they will be able to move on to the next portion of the survey. As for the timeline of the entire project, no one can be certain.

“It’s already about twice as long as what I expected,” said Lamoureux.

He likened the process of meeting with administrators to “a glacier playing badminton.”

While dealing with the intricacies, the group has still tried engage the campus community in their mission; an effort that has had mixed effects. They won best homecoming float last year for their earth friendly, zero emission float that consisted of the members carrying a cardboard structure. Every year they bring a scaled model of the dome, complete with mossy turf and running water, to Sparticipation for freshmen to see. Still, events like these have yielded them only occasional member or two, if they’re lucky—hardly a worthy investment, especially when it takes five hours to set up the model.

But even more strangely, not even other environmental organizations seem to know much about the Student Greenhouse Project, despite their promotional events. Horticulture junior and Horticulture Club Vice President Jackie Grow said the Student Greenhouse Project is little known to neither her nor many others in the club beyond simple name recognition, though she thought the dome could present good opportunities for her fellow members if it were built.

Peshek thinks the club hasn’t been detailed enough in their marketing of the project to the environmental community.

“I think they’re environmental but I don’t think they’re marketing in a way that makes them serious,” she said. “They (other campus environmentalists) like the idea, but don’t see how it’s going to be built.”

But the members of the Student Greenhouse Project plan to keep doing what they’ve always done: stay persistent through all the kinks and set backs and keep on track, holding faith that it will all come together in the end.

“I’m a little bit frustrated, but I keep reminding myself that things don’t get done quickly when you are dealing with any kind of bureaucracy,” said Sumroo. “You have to have patience if you want to see something fulfilling get done.”

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