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When does Cleveland's vacant land reuse become self sustaining?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/21/11 @ 1:29pm

Urban farmers here have a debate on, and it goes something like this: Does the labor and resource intensive act of preparing abandoned properties for food production square with the economic realities of starting up a profit-minded business? It's an old debate, one that's raged for years among non- and for-profit entrepreneurs.

It spilled over into the public again last week at the Levin College Forum, which highlighted vacant land renewal efforts, including the 56 ReImagining pilot reuse projects started last summer. While the event was intended to be celebratory, sparks flew when the panelists opened a discussion about whether their farm ventures are better off aiming for self-sufficiency. Is it unrealistic to set those expectations on a venture that-like its bricks and mortar equivalent (urban infill development)-requires heavy subsidies to take on some of the most intractable issues an older industrial city faces-toxic waste and the legacy of haphazard decisions?

Justin Husher received a $10,000 ReImagine grant to clean up an abandoned lot near W. 130th Street, but despite this small subsidy, his goal is make a go of farming as a business.

"I want to be able to pay my mortage doing this," said Husher, who has a bachelor's degree in Botany and an MBA. He bristled at suggestions from some of his fellow urban farmers that he reboot his half-acre Husher Farm as a non-profit business. "If I can't make a living off my farm, it's not worth doing," he said flatly.

Mansfield Frazier, who's working to turn three vacant lots along Hough Avenue into a vineyard and 'wine-pub' business called Chateau Hough, plans to take advantage of the philanthropic funds a non-profit can raise. "I see the nonprofit as a vessel to receive support" for the mission driven aspects, including a re-entry work program for incarcerated youth.

Frazier tried to encourage Husher to consider the multiple layers of non- and for-profit that can be tied together in one place ? citing Will Allen's Growing Power, a five-acre urban farm in Milwaukee that has a non-profit and for-profit business.

But even Frazier admitted there's no future to urban farming if it doesn't create wealth.

"If you aren't doing this to make money, don't do it," Frazier agreed. "This isn't going to work long term with volunteers. You have to make this a paying job."

The benchmark, Frazier said, is an income of $36,000 a year. In some cases, urban farming can supplement an income, added moderator Bobbi Reichtell, senior VP at Neighborhood Progress, Inc. and one of the prominent figures in the ReImagine project.

Reichtell's son, Peter McDermott, and his partner, Virginia Houston, for example are exploring urban farming as a side income at their 1/3-acre Urban Growth Farm on the near west side. On three vacant lots owned by Urban Community School, the pair plants an intense rotation of "salad" veggies?mostly greens?using a method called SPIN farming, which promises a $10,000 return on a small acreage farm. McDermott's day job at E4S is building a community around the entrepreneurship of urban farming.

Frazier says his inspiration comes from the likes of Veronica Walton, Director of NEO Restoration Alliance. Its joint venture with the non-profit Hitchcock Center for Women trains Hough residents at the Center's 13,000 sq. ft. market garden (they sell their veggies through a CSA). He also cites Carl Skalak, who started his for-profit Blue Park Farm in Cleveland on vacant land near E. 72nd Street.

"For me, it became, 'how do you take (vacant) land and create wealth?'" Frazier said. "A young person can earn $20,000 a year tending wine grapes, presuming you turn out a good wine-and if you don't you make vinegar. Twenty years ago, it was brewpubs, now I want to see wineries cropping up in Cleveland."

For many ReImagine pilot projects, community equals or surpasses building a better bottom line in the priorities column. Darren and Johanna Hamm, for instance, wanted a derelict property in their Brooklyn Center neighborhood replete with chain-link fence, overgrown grass and weeds that attracted drug dealers and illegal trash dumpers to go. They marshaled a corps of volunteers who-after many sweaty hours breaking up and amending the soil-planted a community orchard at Louisiana and W. 38th Street. Today, it's surrounded by a lovely white picket fence; a trellis and winding gravel path lit by beautiful old style lamps welcome visitors.

"Such an effort depends on the hands of many," Darren Hamm said. "We had the help of Core Community Service, the block club, volunteers from Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Case, a neighbor with a Bobcat. A space that lays vacant for so long, you need help doing the heavy lifting."

Slavic Village Community Development is directed by Marie Kittridge, who told the Forum how their non-profit organization is reclaiming vacant land for projects like the Willow Community Garden and a 'savannah' along the Morgana Run trail.

"This is about building neighborhood confidence," Kittridge said. "It's bottom-up, not someone coming in, buying up land and deciding what it will be used for. This has enabled us to stop nibbling at the edges and work on re-creating green spaces."

The big picture has been the realm of community development groups, to be sure. The ReImagine grants were a catalyst-paying for materials and equipment. But, the grants didn't pay for labor-or vision. After all, it's a missionary zeal that drives all urban farming and vacant land efforts to a large degree, right? What separates them from the entrepreneur who, by nature, sacrifices countless hours to her dream?

Merging profit and community is the realm of social entrepreneurs, a hybrid of non- and for-profit models. Some are hoping to raise a new crop of urban agriculture entrepreneurs by concentrating efforts in one of the hardest hit areas on the city's east side.

Around E. 55th Street and Kinsman, the Cleveland Foundation plans to start-up their next Evergreen Cooperative, a massive, employee-owned greenhouse growing salad greens locally. Just down the road, the owners of exterminating company Rid All along with non-profit group, Policy Bridge, are working on plans for a regional training center focused on composting and aquaponics (with the estimable Will Allen providing technical assistance). And right next door, non-profit agriculture training, OSU Extension, is pouring $700,000 into a six-acre farm where Clevelanders can be trained to incubate market gardens, or graze sheep and goats, on a 26-acre swath of vacant land on the city's east side being dubbed the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone.

"There are so many great synergies; it's not going to be competition," OSU Extension's Morgan Taggart says about the Rid All and Evergreen ventures. "We need to be open to conversations with them. We're doing similar training; our farmers could provide organic matter for their compost.

"We've been interested in a cooperative business model ever since CityFresh," she adds, referring to the Cleveland CSA that draws from urban as well as rural farmers."

Taggart compares the $700,000 USDA and state grants to provide technical support, infrastructure and to test and remediate the soil to the city making an urban brownfield site "shovel ready for development to move in."

Frazier shared one final thought on the vacant land reclamation efforts in Cleveland: Just because it's vacant and hasn't been used properly in years, doesn't mean the value is gone.

"People in the inner city value their land just as much as that person (values his) in Hunting Valley."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It's hard to be a skeptic when you see the images of who's doing the hard work to make the city more green. The ReImagining photo exhibit, which opened at Levin College the same night as the Forum, provides a satisfying look at the before and after as hundreds of volunteers removed car bumpers, tires, bathroom tiles, chain link fence, weeds and hard hard ground to make way for green gardens, raised beds, paths, picket fences, benches, fruit trees and something more like?hope.

Also, see the results of the ReImagine pilots in the newly published "ReImagining Cleveland: Ideas to Action Resource Book" The book, published by Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and NPI, has vignettes of the ReImagine pilot projects in categories from market garden to rain garden. It includes budgets, lessons, illustrated plans and pictures, and community resources to start your own vacant lot project.

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