Always experimenting: Marty Lagina on energy, Traverse City and its TV fame

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He’s a low-key former yooper who now owns the Peninsula Market, Kingsley Lumber, Mari Vineyards and one of Front Street’s most prominent buildings. Oh, and his day jobs are as the owner of Michigan’s largest private alternative energy company and as a global television star. Meet Marty Lagina, famous for digging for treasure on the History Channel’s top-grossing show The Curse of Oak Island, but he is happiest working on a slab of wood in his cluttered workshop. The ticker recently caught up with Lagina at his winery to get his candid opinions on everything from why electric vehicles aren’t the answer to climate change to why 21st-century architecture is so bad in Traverse City.

Ticker: You drilled very successfully for the oil and gas industry in the 1990s. I wonder how you went from there to pioneering alternative energy.
lagina: After law school, I went into business because I didn’t want to be a lawyer. We were drilling for oil and gas, and my company figured out how to extract gas from shale, and that’s what happened here in Michigan. I sold this company in 1996 and have always been interested in how we boost our economy. And I’m a mechanical engineer. I believe we need to switch to renewable energy and/or nuclear power for a number of reasons. So I started acquiring land for it.

Ticker: And pretty quickly you became one of the biggest players in wind and then solar.
lagina: Yes, there weren’t many people who did. We constructed Michigan’s first two utility-size wind farms in McBain and since then at least six across the state. At our peak we probably had 80-90 wind turbines. We installed enough wind power to power Traverse City. And then we use a lot of solar energy, but not to the same extent. We supply Traverse City Light & Power, Cherryland and Wolverine as well as Cloverland in the UP. But we sold all the wind farms; DTE now owns the most. For a while we were probably Michigan’s largest wind company by far, and now we’re probably Michigan’s largest company in solar. There are much larger ones, but they are mostly Michigan utility companies or foreign companies.

Ticker: Your own companies use a lot of alternative energies?
lagina: Yeah, where we’re sitting now, we’ve had all sorts of dead ashes. Since then we have been burning this wood to heat this winery and provide hot water. Most of the business is underground so we have very little air conditioning. And we trade electricity that comes from the windmill we bought from Traverse City Light & Power. It’s about a match for what we need here. Nothing is truly zero carbon, but we’re very close. And then we got solar panels on the peninsula market and also on my barn at my home. I try to live like this. I don’t believe in compromising or substituting our standard of living for how we do things. I believe in America and its smart people. I think we can live well and not have to compromise, but still tackle our CO2 problem.

Ticker: You’ve talked a lot about the nation’s energy grid. What excites you about it?
lagina: It’s a nightmare. It’s run entirely by utilities – each either a monopoly or a quasi-monopoly, used to having their own turf and protecting it – and then they’re regulated by four government departments. So it’s a very, very complex animal. If you’re looking to build a wind farm in Michigan, there’s no source that can tell you whether or not that power line can accommodate your generated electricity. if there is capacity. It will take about three years to change that. And then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get an answer, but you won’t know the actual amount. And you may need to upgrade the substation 40 miles away. Most developers say it takes five years, and in the meantime you just wait and take all the risk. And that’s just a small example.

Ticker: I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on climate change, especially as a businessman you’re skeptical about most things, but you’re in the alternative energy industry.
lagina: Here’s the point of the carbon issue: It’s so huge and contains so much disinformation – some intentionally, I think – that nobody has really developed a plan to address the scale of the problem, and it’s obviously a global problem.

Ticker: But there are still some who don’t even consider climate change to be a real problem…
lagina: I don’t think there is anyone else who would reasonably say that this isn’t a problem. The magnitude of the results is debatable, but… I think companies are coming on board for one reason: pressure from people. Customers say, “You can do it.” There’s a strong desire to solve the problem in the population, people want to do something, like drive a Tesla, but that’s the big problem [shows a pie chart illustrating where U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from by economic sector]. I’ve come to believe that electrifying everything will never fix everything. You will never fly to Europe on a battery-powered plane. Never. Let’s just say, immediately every single car on the road is electric – every car in the nation. Well, that only affects 14 percent of our emissions [electricity represents 27 percent, and industry 22 percent]. Someone needs to look at the bigger picture, and I have ideas to help. We need a new fuel, one that hits all of these sectors. And that exists. It’s green hydrogen, and that includes nuclear. It can be used in all these areas and would change the world.

Ticker: OK, but as you say, it’s a global problem. What about China?
lagina: We will simply never force China, Russia or Indonesia to do anything. But if we develop a technology and they see that it works, they will see that it is worthwhile for them and they will adopt it.

Ticker: Let’s talk about some of your other business interests. Why a winery?
lagina: Well, I’m Italian, and if you ever stop making wine, they’ll kick you out! My grandparents were destitute, but they lived well. And my grandfather in the UP imported grapes from California [and make wine]. And I like experimentation, and I wanted to make a really good red. You know, we’re on the same latitude as Bordeaux, but we can’t take the heat because we don’t have an ocean. Our goal here is therefore to grow first-class red wines. It’s part science and part art, and it takes a long time… the art is slow and the science is changing.

Ticker: And the peninsula market?
lagina: At first it was just an investment. Now that I’m older, it’s nice for me to make money, but if you can make money and do something good for the community, that’s much better. It became clear that the market could be a really good community value. And people wanted a gas station out here, and I thought, why would everyone have to expend so much energy going into town to get gas? So we added a gas station, which made sense for the community but not a lot of money.

Ticker: You own Front Row Centre, the big building on Front Street.
lagina: Yes it is an investment. The building is full except for the massive 6,800-square-foot basement. Maybe it’s about time someone else came up with a great idea for this space.

Ticker: And Kingsley Lumber?
lagina: Yes, same category: a company worth saving. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, the company got into trouble and a few others approached me to take it over. The good people working there had nothing to do with the financial problems. It was just an asset that was a shame to squander. I hope to make money but also do something good for the community.

Ticker: And finally this little TV show, The Curse Of Oak Island. Where does it come from?
lagina: We did not present the idea. The guy behind it, Kevin Burns, kind of knew Oak Island, and my brother was always fascinated by it. We had already started our own endeavors there, and Kevin came to Traverse City. We didn’t originally want to do the show. But he convinced us, especially my brother: “But Rick, you were interested in that even as a little boy and it helped you. So what about other boys, it might help?” I love that it’s family oriented and encourages young people to do something other than video games. I said we would if we didn’t look stupid and despite our best efforts we didn’t!

Ticker: And is the show lucrative for you?
lagina: Well, initially we paid everything, but now they pay us the money. So yes, there is money in there. But we wouldn’t just do it for the money. It’s something we shared as boys and it’s really fascinating. Something really strange happened, and there are so many possibilities…

Ticker: What about Traverse City? Love where is it going? Concerned about growth and change?
lagina: I first came here in 1972 with a buddy on a motorcycle. I thought, “What a beautiful city.” Then I came back after school in 1984. I will say that from a private property rights standpoint I think many of the problems were caused by planning and zoning. I just don’t like the lifeboat mentality: we’re in, so keep everyone else out. It doesn’t sound right or fair or American. I still think it’s a beautiful place. But here: give me a favorite building or two in town, a beautiful piece of architecture.

Ticker: OK, how about Building 50 in Grand Traverse Commons? Or the Fifth Third building at Front and Union?
lagina: Right. And in both cases, at the time these were built, there were no rules about what they were allowed to build, but they built incredible structures. The rules are just so ubiquitous now. They tick this box and that box, and by the time the smoke clears, they’ve completely eliminated the sense of art. But the genie is out of the bottle, zoning is in place and we rely on it. I’m just saying, don’t over-regulate, otherwise individual initiative will be stifled.

Ticker: You have so much to do and so many wide-ranging interests. But people tell me you’re never happier than when you’re tinkering with wood in your little workshop.
lagina: This is true. You know, Oak Island, my hobbies and investments… they involve good people. Maybe I can help with the CO2 issue, earn some money and do something good. And I just like to experiment. There’s nothing I like better.

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