Eight years ago, explaining the idea of a sustainability nonprofit (and what exactly such an organization did) was a task in and of itself for Bethesda Green Executive Director Dave Feldman.
This year, after building Bethesda Green into a business incubator of 15 companies, partnering with local restaurant owners to reduce energy usage and leading a number of other “green” projects around town, Feldman will step down to start creating Bethesda Green-like groups across the country.
“Green and sustainability in this country were quite young,” said Feldman, who started Bethesda Green with a $25,000 county grant championed by Councilmember George Leventhal.
“It’s much more of a common discussion right now. You see it in the county’s schools, the county offers a green certification and you hear it in a lot of the businesses that are now making their operations green,” Feldman said. “The movement has definitely come a long way. We had to build it so people could see what it looked like.”
What Bethesda Green looks like, eight years later, is part economic development engine, part environmental nonprofit, part facilitator of partnerships between businesses and county government.
Leventhal and Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman helped Feldman found the nonprofit and remain influential in its operation and activities.
Feldman, who comes from an economic development background, said one of the main catalysts for the organization was then-Chevy Chase Bank, which graciously gave Bethesda Green the office space it uses today above its now Capital One Bank branch at Cordell and Woodmont Avenues.
“Everybody has contributed in different ways to the incubator,” Feldman said. “I visualized it. I had no idea how it would unfold. I had no idea Chevy Chase Bank would give us $4,000 square feet in downtown Bethesda. You can’t expect these types of things.”
The other purpose of Bethesda Green is to serve as a facilitator, or a platform for collaboration between business and government. The offices include an education center. Bethesda Green has hosted pitch sessions to help start-ups refine their message for seed investors. It’s also brought the concept of sustainability to local business owners.
Take for instance, GRAB (the Green Restaurant Association of Bethesda). Chef Tony Marciante of Chef Tony’s fame and the owner of Yamas on Rugby Avenue recently started an informal group of restaurant owners to talk tax breaks, incentives, biofuel, waste oil and smart purchasing methods for restaurants to be more green and cut costs.
Feldman said Bethesda Green will likely put up a green roof on a prominent Bethesda building soon, though the details haven’t been finalized. It’s behind the recycling bins seen throughout downtown Bethesda, a seemingly small but concrete effort Feldman said resonates with residents and business owners.
Feldman will stick around until the organization finds its new executive director and he’ll remain as an advisor. His main focus will shift to his consulting firm, The Livability Project, which will seek to bring Bethesda Green-like nonprofits to other communities around the country. Look for one in Prince George’s County soon.
It’s also possible Bethesda Green could be the hub of a future region-wide “sustainability cluster,” something Feldman hopes to pursue on a national level.
Today, Bethesda Green has six part-time employees and revenue of $325,000. Feldman said a green, sustainability nonprofit can work anywhere. But it helped that his first major effort at the concept came here.
“Part of it is because Bethesda has an engaged group of residents. There was a need and an opportunity. You also have the right leadership here,” Feldman said. “It didn’t happen in other towns. It happened in Bethesda.”