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Washington Township businessman wants to grow environmental firms

| Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 7:04 a.m.
David Hails, owner of Ecological Restoration, checks the progress of New England asters, a wetlands plant, that he is growing in one of the greenhouses of his Washington Township business on Monday, March 17, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
David Hails, owner of Ecological Restoration, checks the progress of New England asters, a wetlands plant, that he is growing in one of the greenhouses of his Washington Township business on Monday, March 17, 2014.

The seed of a future career was planted early in David Hails.

“I watered plants on the way home from school every day,” said Hails, who as a 9-year-old would walk to his job at Everything Green, a since-closed Greensburg plant store.

An entrepreneur even then, he grew his own plants to sell in the shop.

“I grew sensitive plants — the ones where you touch them and they'd fold up,” he said. “They were big in the '70s. I'd sell them for 50 cents each. I had a mother plant at home that would produce the seeds.”

His early agrarian efforts have germinated into a flourishing enterprise.

Hails owns three businesses in Washington Township and wants to expand them.

In April, he'll seek approval from the township supervisors to join five parcels along Goodview Drive that he's bought during the years into one 20-acre property, which he intends to name the Everything Green Business Park, after his childhood post.

Cheryl Dickey, Washington Township's planning commission secretary, said Hails is finalizing paperwork and she isn't aware of any no problems related to the proposal.

“He's a good business for the township,” Dickey said.

Hails is president of three companies on that property:

• Ecological Restoration Inc., which restores wetlands and streams when they've been disturbed by events such as construction or severe weather;

• Wetland Supply Co., a nursery that grows plants used for wetland and stream bank restoration;

• Mudpuppy Equipment Co., which sells and rents specialty equipment used in projects that involve muddy terrain.

Hails said he bought the properties during the years to make room for the nursery and to park the 100 pieces of heavy equipment the businesses own.

There will be no other businesses in that location.

“This will just lock the properties together,” Hails said, noting he hasn't had complaints about his land's use. “We've created buffers. All corners of the property have spruce or pine trees, and on Route 66, we have a 2-acre parcel that is going to stay oak trees. So that'll stay a buffer, too.”

One of the biggest parcels he bought was an old airport along Route 356, which already was zoned for commercial use; it has a spruce and pine tree buffer also.

“We didn't turn any residential into commercial except for one house on one acre,” he said.

Business sprouts at 29

Hails founded the first venture, Ecological Restoration, in 1992 at age 29. It has completed jobs in 38 states, and gets jobs through entities such as the Army Corps of Engineers and PennDOT, Hails said. It recently completed jobs with the University of Toledo and the Toledo Botanical Garden.

“We have a reputation,” Hails said. “After we do one job, we get another one. It's mostly through word of mouth.”

David Derrick is a research hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers for 34 years and vice president of a consulting firm, River Research & Design Inc., in Vicksburg, Miss. He said he's always had a good experience working with Hails' firms.

“I have provided construction oversight on 13 big restoration projects with (Hails) over the last five years,” Derrick said. “With his skilled operators and plant background, his company does a great job of stabilizing and restoring complex riverine and wetland areas.”

While employment at Hails' companies' has dropped to six as the economy withered, he said he expects it to thrive again as business opportunities sprout.

“We had to make it through the recession, too,” Hails said. “But things are picking up. We will be hiring this year and on into next year.”

Dr. Daniel Bain, assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Geology and Planetary Science, said a turnaround in the recession isn't the only thing that can help companies like Hails'.

“It's not just the economy, but also the philosophy of state government,” Bain said. “For example, Maryland utilizes stream restoration, Pennsylvania has some but not as much, and other states not at all.”

Bain said environmental mandates drive business.

“There's always markets in places like Greene and Washington counties where they're doing long-wall mining,” Bain said, which sometimes diminishes stream flows. He said three environmental consulting firms — Moody & Associates Inc., Meadville, Pa.; Wallace and Pancher Inc., Hermitage, Pa.; and Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., Pittsburgh — are busy throughout that region restoring streams.

“Every other truck you see is from one of those firms,” Bain said. “And in that case, that market is driven by Act 54,” a state act that mitigates the impact of underground coal mine subsidence.

New opportunities: Bridge creek beds

Hails sees an opportunity coming from a number of bridge renovations nationwide.

“As a result of a new program, there will be 4,000 bridges restored in Pennsylvania in the next couple years,” Hails said. “We would do restoration and for rivers and stream banks disturbed in the process of construction. We'll team up with local contractors and do some of that work.”

What's more, Derrick said the market for ecological restoration will grow as weather disasters occur.

“As weather becomes more extreme in the future, this type of work will be needed more often,” Derrick said.

In the meantime, Hails is retrofitting his property's seven buildings with energy-saving features; re-using rain runoff to water the plants; maintaining a “green” roof sown with shrubs and plants; and using natural gas from a well on the property to provide heat and hot water.

As a result, Hails is seeking LEED certification for his property, a U.S. Green Building Council designation that indicates the highest level of environmental and energy-saving design.

The Goodview Drive property is home to a large greenhouse and outdoor basins where a variety of plants is grown, including coastal plants such as beach grass and salt marsh grass, which they've sold to customers in New York and New Jersey to restore land from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Hails said he's planning on opening up his property so the public can drop off leaf clippings, which he will recycle into compost. Additionally, he is seeking area residents who are interested in getting rid of their acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts.

“They make a big mess in people's yards and they have to clean them up,” Hails said. “But we'll buy them. We need the nuts to grow more of them. They are good native trees.”

He is proposing to buy them by the 5-gallon bucketful, but he hasn't set a price, which will happen later this summer.

“We've stopped by people's property when we've seen trees just driving by and people have seemed interested,” he said. “They were all for it.”

Maria Guzzo is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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