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Originally published January 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2007 at 12:35 PM

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Corrected version

Sunday Buzz

Secretive ethanol firm plots a billion-dollar blitz

They visit rural counties around the nation, romancing eager officials with plans to build a billion-dollar string of ethanol plants that...

They visit rural counties around the nation, romancing eager officials with plans to build a billion-dollar string of ethanol plants that will create jobs, gobble up locally raised corn, and put the town on alternative energy's leading edge. Their backer, they say, is a technology billionaire from India.

Back home in Kingston, their Web site gives no phone number, no employee names and no street address.

This is the elusive E85 Inc., which since last fall has aroused the hopes of politicians and farmers from Fayetteville, N.C., to Chaves County, N.M, and Corunna, Mich. (where "Ethanol Plant Proposed" and the E85 logo now dominate the city government's home page).

Who are these people?

Mark Dassel, E85's senior vice president, says there's no real mystery — he and a skeleton staff have simply been too busy to answer inquiries: "This is a 7-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job."

Links


E85 Inc.: http://e85.us/AboutE85.shtml

Corunna, Michigan home page: http://www.corm.us/

Gallery condos: http://www.liveatgallery.com

Metropolitan Grill: Metropolitan Grill's Guess the Dow predictions (PDF)

Skimping on details, he lays out an exceedingly ambitious agenda: E85 plans to quickly put up 10 ethanol plants costing about $150 million each. Together these will produce more than 1 billion gallons of ethanol annually; the company will buy an additional 1 to 2 billion gallons from other plants, he says.

A veritable gusher of new U.S. ethanol plants is coming on line, but Dassel contends E85's rapid, cookie-cutter approach means "we're going to be the low-cost producer" when a shakeout comes.

He acknowledges that Wallula, Walla Walla County, has a site "we're very interested in." Though he won't say if any land — anywhere — has been purchased or leased yet, Dassel vows E85 will break ground on the first plant by mid-year and have all 10 built by the end of 2008.

Both equity and debt financing for the building blitz are "secured," he says, thanks to his Indian backer and E85's acting president, C. Sivasankaran.

Independent news reports describe Sivasankaran as a midlevel Indian tycoon whose Sterling Infotech Group last spring sold some telecom operations for more than $1 billion. Dassel calls him Siva, says the "C." represents "a very long Indian first name," and characterizes the man as "brilliant" and "actively involved in the business on a day-to-day basis."

Some people who've dealt with E85 seem confident in its plans.

"I think they're the real deal, they're definitely going to build some plants," says Dan Mahon, technical-services manager for Vogelbusch U.S.A., an international firm contracted to design E85's proposed Wallula plant and others.

Clark Krause, CEO of the New Mexico Economic Development Commission, says his group has only seen three company employees, but "everyone that we've met has been a highly qualified engineer." New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson this week announced E85 would employ 45-50 people at a future plant near Roswell.

While Dassel has been low-profile around here, he's getting to know some communities. Next week, he says, he has three town meetings at sites in Michigan and Ohio.

Studio solution

You paid hundreds of thousands for that new studio unit downtown, yet it's barely big enough for a space-saving, fold-up kitchen table. How can you have friends and family over for a home-cooked meal?

"If you live in 600 square feet of space, it's pretty tough to cram 10 people in there and cook a full-on meal," says Laura Brice, sales manager at Gallery, a condo project going up in Belltown.

Not surprisingly, she's promoting Gallery's solution — a room called the Supper Club, with a fully equipped kitchen and dining table that seats 10.

No need to bring pots or plates, Brice says. The room will have just about everything needed to prepare and serve a meal like Mom used to make. (Residents will, however, need to reserve the room and put a deposit down to cover any potential damage.)

Brice says plenty of people want to live downtown, near trendy shops and restaurants but still want to cook for friends and family, especially during the holidays.

Gallery's 214 units, some as small as 400 square feet, will be priced from $285,000 to more than $3 million. It's scheduled to open in fall 2008 — and now's probably a good time to reserve it for Thanksgiving.

— Amy Martinez

Exuberance rising

Smart investors shun the herd mentality.

So when all nine prognosticators at the annual "Guess the Dow" luncheon this week predicted the stock average would post a solid gain in 2007, the master of ceremonies sounded an alarm.

"We don't have anyone who is really bearish," said broker Joel Ferrell of Smith Barney, "and that scares the pants off of me."

Shaun Dennehy of Ragen MacKenzie echoed that sentiment when asked if the widespread bullishness bothered him. "Absolutely," he said. "Being a contrarian, you don't like that."

For the record, the nine brokers assembled at the Metropolitan Grill foresee the Dow closing this year at anywhere from 13,206 to 15,025.

Their average, 14,062, would mean a 12.8 percent climb in the Dow in 2007.

Note that for last year the group's average forecast was 11,673, for a gain of 8.9 percent — while the Dow jumped 16.3 percent for the year.

To see the brokers' predictions and stock picks, see this story online.

For links related to column items, see seattletimes.com/businesstechnology.

Rami Grunbaum, deputy business editor, and Seattle Times

Information in this article, originally published January 21, 2007, was corrected January 23, 2007. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that E85 Inc., which plans a national string of ethanol plants, is based in Mukilteo. It is based in Kingston.

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