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Genera to make $118M investment, create 80 jobs

Earthable is the trademarked name. In a couple of years, lots of people could know what it stands for.

Genera is announcing today it has completed securing $118 million to produce a new line of sustainable agricultural fiber products that could be used by restaurants across the country.

The Vonore-based company, which hopes to add 80 new jobs, is not exactly starting from ground zero. Readers may recall when Genera Energy Inc. was created in 2007 by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation to partner with DuPont to build and operate a biorefinery in Vonore capable of producing 250,000 gallons of ethanol annually.

The idea was “to scale up next-generation cellulosic ethanol technology to commercial capacity.” The plan was to use crops such as switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol.

The state legislature approved $70.5 million in total investment for the project. As 2015 closed out the year, DuPont announced it was closing the plant. It had opened a 30-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol facility in Iowa in the heart of corn country.

The believers in switchgrass had not given up, though. Neither were they starting at ground zero. They had an almost new manufacturing building, equipment that was still adaptable and two huge silos.

They also still had farmers in Monroe and surrounding Tennessee counties growing switchgrass. Not 5,000 acres like when the end product was biofuel. But 2,000 acres still remained four years after the plant closure.

Dropping the energy label

After dropping “energy” from its name, Genera is transforming itself from being a company that produced an additive to petroleum fuel to a product that replaces plastics made from oil.

Genera will use locally grown grasses and other agricultural crops to make compostable food service packaging products like plates, bowls and takeout containers at its reconfigured manufacturing facility in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park. In addition to making products that are a sustainable alternative to plastics and polystyrene, like Styrofoam-type products, Genera’s Earthable fibers also can be used to produce a wide array of towel, tissue, cupstock and other paper products.

Earthable will be the largest fully integrated, domestic solution for ag-based fiber and food-grade packaging in the U.S., according to Genera. It is designed to meet the growing, consumer-driven demands for more eco-friendly products in the food and consumer industries.

“With this new investment, we can begin to answer the increasing demand for environmentally conscious solutions with a truly farm-to-table product made in America,” Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera, said in announcing the initiative.

The financing was anchored by an equity investment from WindSail Capital Group, a growth capital investor specializing in sustainability and energy innovation. WindSail partnered with investors Coppermine Capital and Stairway Capital in the Genera financing.

“We and our partners are investing in Genera because they are pioneering a solution that will serve both our domestic rural economy and the rapidly growing demand for environmentally friendly packaging in the consumer market,” said Ian Bowles, managing director of WindSail Capital.

The fibers are derived from locally grown, high-yield conservation crops like switchgrass and biomass sorghum. Genera already has begun to work with local East Tennessee farmers to produce additional acres of the feedstock it will use in its new manufacturing facility and is actively seeking additional farm partners in the region.

TennEra, an affiliate of the UT Research Foundation, has leased its former biorefinery in Vonore to Genera.

“We are excited for the positive rural economic benefit of Genera’s fiber production facility in East Tennessee and beyond, furthering UT’s land grant mission,” said Stacey Patterson, president of UTRF and UT vice president for research, outreach and economic development.

Taking on imports

Genera has its eyes aimed directly not just at plastics, but at the fiber-based food service products that some environmentally conscious restaurants are starting to use. Sam Jackson, Genera vice president of business development, points out the catch to that.

“If you go to any number of restaurant chains and you get a bleached-white fiber container — because you can get those today — those are imported from Asia,” he said.

They don’t have to be. Genera plans on tapping into products raised within 50 miles of its plant and to use a mechanical process that doesn’t come with the environmental damage of bleached white, wood-fiber products requiring large amounts of water and chemicals. According to Jackson, the water used to process the cellulose from grasses as opposed to trees is minimal, and all water is recycled by Genera.

“The nice thing about these products? They’re fully compostable, fully biodegradable. At a restaurant where you’re getting a polystyrene or a Styrofoam container today, that’s going to be here 1,000 years from now; this will compost in a commercial compost facility in 90 days,” he said.

“We have branded this the Earthable product line. It’s from the earth back to the earth. We can grow the crop in a field and in 90 days this will turn into compost and go back into the soil.”

Genera’s fiber production facility is expected to be ready to deliver Earthable products to the marketplace in 2020, initially bringing 80 new jobs to Vonore. The company will begin hiring early next year, including skilled operators and maintenance positions.

Even before the Vonore facility begins operations, Genera officials expressed confidence that customer demand will lead to expansion. The company is looking at options to increase production capacity beyond the anticipated 100-tons per day and potentially increasing total employment by 50%.

Maryville man pleads guilty to two counts of child pornography

KNOXVILLE — A Maryville man pleaded guilty Tuesday in the U.S. District Court to two counts of producing and disseminating child pornography.

Defense attorney T. Scott Jones said George Edward Robert Everhart pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts of possessing child pornography that showed a child 12 or younger who was transported through interstate or foreign commerce.

Jones said prosecutors tentatively have agreed to drop five other charges related to the production and distribution of child pornography under a Section 11(c)1 plea agreement, which allows the courts to reject the arrangement pending the outcome of a presentence investigation.

Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 10.

“If everything goes through, the other charges will be dismissed as part of the plea agreement,” Jones said.

The case proved more complex than some similar federal cases because it raised several legally sticky questions.

Everhart, 30, was indicted on June 19, 2018, following the notification of Google management of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children after an engineer found pornographic images of young children in Everhart’s storage account dating back to 2015.

Technology companies typically are required to be shown a search warrant before accessing user-initiated virtual storage accounts.

Exceptions exist during certain types of account failures or outside breaches, when a company’s legal and engineering teams observe carefully delineated protocols for handling potentially leaked or damaged items.

Investigators also found other images in an unallocated storage space on Everhart’s computer that wasn’t specified in a search warrant, which Jones and co-counsel Gena Lewis contended should have been excluded as evidence.

The defense also had recently attempted to subpoena a top Google global security executive to disclose the company’s practices related to account storage and access.

Jones and Lewis also contended that NCMEC acted as a governmental entity in notifying federal authorities and providing the photos to launch the investigation.

The agency was created in 1984 after Congress passed the Missing Children’s Assistance Act to require the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to create a national clearinghouse to track cases involving missing and endangered children.

NCMEC is one of several programs operated under the MCAA law, including the Amber Alert program.

It is registered as a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) and is funded through the DOJ and other private and public sources.

Jones estimated Everhart faces a possible range of 18 to 25 years in prison, but may be sentenced to around 17 years.

“A risk-factor assessment must be done,” Jones said.

Everhart also would likely be required to register as a lifetime sex offender, Jones added.

“There is no winner in this case,” Jones said. “It’s just a bad set of circumstances.”

Blackberry Farm owner purchases nearly $2.5 million in property from Blackberry companies

Walland-based Blackberry Farm companies sold millions of dollars worth of land to the hotel company’s owner earlier this month.

Realty transfer records show three transactions between two different Blackberry companies on July 1, transferring 225.5 acres of land to Mary Celeste Beall, owner of the Blackberry Farm hotel resort.

Formerly owned by Blackberry Farm LLC and Blackberry Development Company, the property contains four adjacent parcels of land southeast of Hesse Creek in Walland’s West Millers Cove.

Records from the Tennessee Secretary of State show Blackberry Development Company is managed by David Wilson Long, an attorney based in Knoxville.

The largest section of mostly forested land is 82.4 acres and was valued at $1,155,000. Other properties in the transfer were valued at $630,000 for a 77.8-acre parcel and $622,000 for two parcels totaling 65.6 acres.

Geographic Information System technology shows the only access into the property is Dewey Davis Road, which branches off West Millers Cove Road.

Property records also show a parcel of only 12.2 acres in the corner of the parcels Beall has purchased belong to Karey and Joan Witty, who purchased the land from Blackberry Development Company for $1,250,000 in 2016.

Blackberry Farm Director of Marketing Sarah Chabot told The Daily Times in an email the transfer was a personal venture. “Blackberry has acquired land over the years in the area, and these were specific parcels that the Beall family wanted to personally own,” she said.

Beall’s purchases are not the only significant property movements related to Blackberry businesses in the past year.

Blackberry Mountain, a luxury resort development on the northern side of Walland and a sister organization to Blackberry Farm, began its own expansion in June of 2018 by looking into rezoning areas to Planned Rural Resort District.

But the company needed to combine 16 parcels of land into one since PRRD zoning — which allows for recreational activities like tubing and zip-lining — requires parcels of land to be at least 40 acres.

In July 2018, Blackberry Mountain withdrew its rezoning request after Walland citizens opposed the commercial expansion. The Blount County Commission also postponed a vote to rezone the area.

Blackberry Mountain submitted another rezoning request to the Blount County Planning Commission in January 2019. This request was for 22 acres — most of which already were owned by Blackberry companies — to be approved for commercial operation.

Specifically, Blackberry companies wanted to refurbish the downtown area of Walland by building an inn and several small stores.

This rezoning request passed in both the planning and county commissions in March.

Blackberry Mountain recently reached national recognition after the publication of a June 19 travel article in The New York Times, which praised the Walland resort’s unique design and concept.