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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Detroit Urban Farming Enterprise, RecoveryPark, Poised to Revitalize East Side and Create 18,000

May 9, 2013 |

recoveryparklogoThe east side of Detroit, like much of the rest of the city, is in dire need of recovery.

The land is dotted with vacant and abandoned homes. The economy is in tatters. Unemployment, infant mortality, poverty, crime, and drug abuse are major challenges facing the dwindling population.

This is the land capitalism left behind.

A new enterprise combining urban farming, substance abuse rehabilitation, and an alternative economic model is attempting to provide that recovery on the many fronts in which it is needed.

RecoveryPark is an outgrowth of SHAR Inc., which stands for Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation, has provided substance abuse and behavioral health services in Detroit since 1969.

“We took stock of the opportunities and city assets, like open space, freshwater, built infrastructure, and a huge workforce,” says Gary Wozniak, President/CEO of the organization, who graduated from the SHAR program in 1987.

According to Wozniak, 70% of the unemployed in Detroit have some type of structural barrier to employment: a criminal record, low literacy, homelessness, drug addiction, or lack of transferable skills after military service. RecoveryPark plans to build a network of cooperative urban farms, food processing and food distribution businesses that provide a pathway to ownership for the structurally unemployed in Detroit, based on the Mondragon Corporation model.

Mondragon Corporation is a multi-national business entity based in Spain, predicated on a model of cooperative ownership and democratic decision-making. The corporation has been in existence since 1956 and has sustained continuous growth with over 35 billion in assets, and over 84,000 people employed,  82% of whom are cooperative owners.

RecoveryPark has a big, visionary plan and some high-profile backers. The project has raised $1.4 million in funds thus far, supported by the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the Detroit Development Fund. The group projects $15 – $20 million in eventual costs that will be phased in over time and paid for, in part, with revenue generated by the businesses.

Plans for the project were developed in partnership with the Detroit Design Collaborative at the University of Detroit Mercy. Plans call for intensive, small-scale amoeba-like “pod” farm operations, which maximize production and employment potential and encourage urban infill development between farms. Planned methods include indoor agriculture, vertical farming and aquaponics.  Wozniak estimates 5-9 jobs per acre for greenhouse farming, and up to 18 per acre for production and distribution. Wozniak reports that economic models have predicted that the program, when fully built out, could produce 15,000- 18,000 jobs in a relatively short period of time – an economic impact on par with a new automobile factory.

Plans call for intensive, small-scale amoeba-like “pod” farm operations, which maximize production and employment potential and encourage urban infill development between farms. Image Credit: RecoveryPark

Plans call for intensive, small-scale amoeba-like “pod” farm operations, which maximize production and employment potential and encourage urban infill development between farms. Image Credit: RecoveryPark

Wozniak and the many partners of RecoveryPark, including universities, businesses, and governments, undertook an intensive community outreach program, cognizant of Detroiters’ weariness with grand economic development plans and suspicion of large-scale agriculture schemes. Residents had unleashed a strong backlash against Hantz Farms, a private initiative to conduct large-scale agriculture in Detroit, resulting in a much-scaled back tree-farming plan.

In contrast to the Hantz Farms debacle, local neighborhood interest and ownership in RecoveryPark grew relatively quickly, helped by support from neighborhood leaders and the long-standing presence and impact of SHAR Inc. in the community. The public support was in danger of waning, however, when city officials delayed the project due in part to lack of a zoning ordinance to regulate urban agriculture.

Recent adoption of an urban agriculture zoning ordinance in Detroit and an agreement with the city to grant site control of a large parcel to RecoveryPark, means the group will soon launch its first pilot. The nonprofit has nine months to complete due diligence, involving environmental assessments and title clearance, before a final land purchase can be executed. It is not yet determined if the land will be held by RecoveryPark or by the for-profit business ventures it will create.

By the end of 2014, three 30-acre farm operations will be launched, comparing the costs and benefits of standard high-tunnels, permanent high-tunnels, and the more costly but higher-yielding glass Windset greenhouses.

RecoveryPark will operate with an associate support platform. Each associate will be provided wraparound services including a two-week intensive “boot-camp” training, individual skill set assessment, career coach consultation and educational assistance, as well as an initial triage-like life coach service provided on intake to address immediate needs related to housing, transportation, medication, and recovery. Associates will be offered a 3-year path to cooperative ownership.  A fee deducted during the first three year of employment will provide an entry fee.

“The hope is that after three years, a rehabilitated, stabilized person can mentor others,” says Wozniak.

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