Oberlin Project Ends Eight-Year Run


Photo by Rick Yu, Photo editor

The Oberlin Project helped the Oberlin Municipal Light and Power System initiate a three-year Efficiency Smart Power Plant program to support investments in sustainable electric energy. Establishing energy efficiency in Oberlin was a goal of the Oberlin Project, which will close its office this summer.

Jenna Gyimesi, News Editor

For eight years, the Oberlin Project has innovated green programs while endeavoring to stimulate economic activity in a collaborative effort between the College and city. In light of completing its many goals, the program will close its office this summer.

The Oberlin Project was initiated, in part, through the efforts of Environmental Studies and Politics Professor and Special Assistant to the President of the College David Orr. The project had a specific set of goals upon its establishment, inherently making it a temporary program. Some of its aims were to create a 13-acre Green Arts District on Main Street, to invest in more renewable energy sources, to improve the local food and farming economy, to initiate new business ventures and educational alliances with surrounding schools and to help other institutions develop programs similar to the project. The Oberlin Project, succeeding at meeting many of these goals, can now conclude.

The Oberlin Project was supposed to only last six to seven years before completing its tasks. According to Sean Hayes, executive director of the Oberlin Project, the office is closing simply because of how successful it’s been, even leading the Obama administration to select Oberlin as a “Climate Action Champion.” He said that despite the stress of meeting the project’s goals, he feels confident that it will have lasting effects.

“I’ve been really fortunate in that we have a tightknit group,” Hayes said. “When we realized that it was the time, they have reminded me that we all signed up for this job knowing that this day would come. We’ve been here longer than some of us expected. There’s a level of stress with the unknown; change is never easy. The flipside of that is a lot of that stress is internal, and a lot of that would be higher if we weren’t confident in our abilities and that our work matters and matters to other organizations. I have no question about any of that.”

Hayes added that the programs that have been enacted have advanced to require a “structure that is different from the way this project operates.” The programs will continue to grow and solidify the legacy of increasing education on the local and national level as well as influencing progress toward a practical vision of an environmentally and economically resilient society.

“The need [of sustainability work] will only grow, so you know those opportunities will exist,” he said. “We are looking for time in this transition for the staff to sort out what those opportunities are.”

While recent federal actions that threaten environmental protection linger, Hayes said that he is still confident that the Oberlin Project and programs like it will be able to “speak across the political aisle.” He said that the emphasis the project placed on local building programs gives the Oberlin Project power to withstand possible federal decisions.

“The more things at the federal level are slashed and burned, the more important these things at the local level become,” Hayes said.

Hayes also said that since the program was established without the aid of federal agencies, an unsupportive federal administration cannot take away the Oberlin Project’s innovations.

City Councilmember and Project Coordinator Sharon Pearson said the future benefits of the program will help welcome new environmental projects and innovations in Oberlin. She said that not only has the program increased communication between the city and College, but it has also expanded sustainability influence beyond Oberlin.

Both Pearson and Hayes said that while the small and forward-thinking nature of Oberlin helped make the program successful, initiatives like it could very well be replicated elsewhere. Pearson said that other international and local communities and the Department of Energy are looking to the project as a model to work with and, subsequently, continue the influence of the project on local, national and international levels.

“Having this program at Oberlin has been a great testing ground,” Pearson said. “Its success proves that community can replicate what we are doing even though we are so unique. We don’t want to be too unique because we cannot be the only community that can withstand climate change.”

Pearson said that the closing of the project will be an opportunity to further forge city and College connections in the future as well, as the Oberlin Project has inherently forged a cooperative relationship throughout its run. City Manager Rob Hillard agreed, saying that the partnership will have lasting effects in Oberlin.

“I have appreciated the city’s working partnership with the Oberlin Project,” Hillard added. ”They have educated, as well as assisted us in working toward our core value of environmental sustainability. In my time as the city manager, I have benefited from the Oberlin Project, as it relates to outreach with the College as well. We anticipate these relationships to continue, but always appreciated the effort the Oberlin Project provided in building this partnership.”

Hayes said that he hopes students will uphold the legacy of the Oberlin project by engaging with their community. He said he hopes that the program the Oberlin Project has modeled will continue to spread through the actions of Oberlin citizens and students, subsequently catalyzing similar green infrastructures and solutions in the future and elsewhere.

“The work of the Oberlin Project is not done,” Hayes said, adding that the office “does not need to exist” for Oberlin students to get involved in local environmental work.