Always Experimenting: Marty Lagina On Energy, Traverse City, And His TV Celebrity
By Luke Haase | Jan. 14, 2022
He's a low-key former Yooper who now owns the likes of Peninsula Market, Kingsley Lumber, Mari Vineyards, and one of the most prominent buildings on Front Street. Oh, and his day jobs are as owner of the largest private Michigan-based alternative energy company and as a global TV celebrity. Meet Marty Lagina, famous for digging for treasure on History Channel’s top-grossing show The Curse Of Oak Island, but happiest working on a slab of wood in his cluttered workshop. The Ticker recently caught up with Lagina at his winery to hear his unvarnished opinions on everything from why electric vehicles are not the answer to climate change to why Traverse City’s 21st century architecture is so bad.
Ticker: You were extremely successful drilling for oil and gas industry in the 1990s. Wondering how you went from that to being a pioneer in alternative energy.
Lagina: After law school I went into business because I didn’t want to be a lawyer. We drilled for oil and gas, and my company figured out how to get gas from shale, and that happened here in Michigan. I sold that company in 1996, and I’ve always been interested how we fuel our economy. And I’m a mechanical engineer. I believe for several reasons we need to change over to renewables and/or nuclear. So I started acquiring land to do so.
Ticker: And pretty quickly you became one of the biggest players in wind and then solar energy.
Lagina: Yes, there weren’t many people doing it. We put up Michigan's first two utility-sized wind farms in McBain, and since then put up at least six across the state. At our peak, we probably had 80-90 wind turbines. We installed enough wind-generated electricity to run Traverse City. And then we put in a lot of solar but not at the same scale. We supply Traverse City Light & Power, Cherryland and Wolverine, and Cloverland in the U.P. But we sold all the wind farms; DTE owns most now. For a time we were probably the largest Michigan company in wind by far, and now in solar we are probably the biggest based in Michigan. There are much bigger ones, but they are mostly Michigan utilities or out-of-state companies.
Ticker: Your own businesses are utilizing a lot of alternative energies?
Lagina: Yes, where we are sitting now, we had all kinds of dead ash trees. We’ve been burning that wood ever since to heat this winery and provide hot water. Most of the business is underground, so we have very little air conditioning. And we swap-out on electricity, which comes from the windmill we bought from Traverse City Light & Power. It’s about a match for what we need here. Nothing is truly carbon-free, but we’re very close here. And then we got solar panels on Peninsula Market and on my barn at my house too. I try to live that way. I’m not a believer in compromising our standards of living or replacing 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 address our CO2 problem.
Ticker: You’ve talked a lot about the nation’s energy grid. What gets you so riled up about that?
Lagina: It’s a nightmare. It’s run totally by utilities — each either a monopoly or quasi-monopoly, used to having their own turf and protecting it — and then they are regulated by four departments of government. So it’s a very, very complex beast. If you want to put a wind farm in in Michigan, there’s no resource to tell you if that power line can take your power you generate or not; whether there’s capacity there. It’s taking about three years to get turnaround on that. And then if you’re in luck, you’ll get an answer, but you won’t know the actual amount. And you might have to upgrade the substation 40 miles away. Most developers are saying it takes five years, and meanwhile you just wait, taking all the risk. And that’s just one small example.
Ticker: Really interested to hear your views on climate change, particularly because you’re a business person and look at most things skeptically, yet you’re in alternative energy.
Lagina: Here’s the point of the CO2 problem: It’s so huge and has so much disinformation — some intentional, I think — that nobody has really come up with a plan that addresses the scope of the problem, and it’s obviously a global problem.
Ticker: But there are still some who don’t believe climate change is even a real problem…
Lagina: I don’t believe there’s still anybody rational saying this isn't an issue. The magnitude of the results are disputed, but…I think companies are coming on board for one reason: people pressure. The customers are saying, "you will do this.” There’s a strong desire to fix the problem among the population. People want to do something, like driving a Tesla. But here’s the big problem [shows a pie chart illustrating where U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from by economic sector]. I've come to the believe that electrifying everything will never fix everything. You’re never going to fly to Europe on plane powered by batteries. Never. Let’s just say instantly 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 big picture, and I have ideas to help. We need a new fuel, one that hits all those sectors. And that exists. It’s green hydrogen, and that includes nuclear. It can be used in all those sectors, and it would change the world.
Ticker: OK, but as you say, it’s a global problem. What about China?
Lagina: We just are never going to force China, Russia or Indonesia to do anything. But if we develop a technology and they see it working, they will see it’s worth their while and adopt it.
Ticker: Let’s talk about some of your other business interests. Why a winery?
Lagina: Well, I’m Italian, and if you don’t make wine at some point, they kick you out! My grandparents were dirt poor but they lived well. And my grandfather in the U.P would import grapes from California [and make wine]. And I like experiments, and I wanted to make a really good red. You know, we’re on the same latitude as Bordeaux, but we don’t get the heat because we don’t have an ocean. So our goal here is to grow world-class red wines. It’s part science and part art, and it takes a long time…the art comes slowly, and the science changes.
Ticker: And Peninsula Market?
Lagina: Initially that was strictly an investment. To me now that I’m older, making money is nice, but if you can make money and do what’s good for the community, that’s much better. It became clear the market could be a really good community asset. And people wanted a gas station out here, and I thought, why should everyone have to to use all that energy to drive into town to get gas? So we added a gas station, which made community sense, but not a lot of money sense.
Ticker: You own Front Row Centre, the big building on Front Street.
Lagina: Yes, it’s an investment. The building is full except for the huge, 6,800 square foot basement. Maybe it’s time for somebody else to have a great idea for that space.
Ticker: And Kingsley Lumber?
Lagina: Yeah, same category: a company worth saving. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, the company was in trouble, and a couple others approached me about taking it over. The good people who worked there had nothing to do with the financial problems. It was just an asset that was a shame to waste. I hope to make money, but also do something good for the community.
Ticker: And finally, that little TV show, The Curse Of Oak Island. Where did that come from?
Lagina: We didn’t pitch the idea. The guy behind it all, Kevin Burns, knew about Oak Island somehow, and my brother had been fascinated by it forever. We had already started our own efforts there, and Kevin came to Traverse City. We did not want to do the show initially. But he convinced us, mainly my brother: “But Rick, you were interested in this as a little boy and it helped you. So what about other boys it could help?” I do love that it’s a family-oriented, and something that can encourage young people to do something other than video games. I said we’d do it if we wouldn’t look stupid and, despite our best efforts, we haven’t!
Ticker: And is the show lucrative for you?
Lagina: Well initially we paid for it all, but now they pay us the money. So yes, there’s money in it. But we wouldn’t do it just for the money. It’s something we shared as boys, and it’s really intriguing. Something really odd happened there, and there are so many possibilities…
Ticker: What about Traverse City? Love where it’s headed? Worried about growth and change?
Lagina: I first came here in 1972 on a motorcycle with a buddy. I thought, “What a nice city.” Then after school I came back in 1984. I will say that from a private property rights standpoint, I think a lot of the problems have been caused by planning and zoning. I just don’t like the life boat 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 around town, a beautiful piece of architecture.
Ticker: OK, how about Building 50 at Grand Traverse Commons? Or the Fifth-Third building at Front and Union?
Lagina: Right. And in both cases, at the time those were built, there were no rules about what they could build, yet they built incredible structures. The rules now are just so pervasive. They check this box and that box, and when the smoke clears, they’ve turned the sense of art off completely. But the genie is out of the bottle, zoning exists, and we rely on it. I just say don’t overregulate, or that personal initiative gets stifled.
Ticker: You have so much going on and so many far-reaching interests. But people tell me you’re never happier than when you’re in your little workshop tinkering with wood.
Lagina: That is true. You know, Oak Island, my hobbies and investments…they involve good people. Maybe I can help with the CO2 issue, make some money and do some good. And I just like experimenting. There’s nothing I like better.