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Can Innovative Urban Food Production Save Detroit?

Nothing else has worked. A local entrepreneur is asking the city to give his ideas a chance.

The Packard manufacturing plant, which closed in 1956 and has become a symbol of Detroit's decline. (Photo: David Kidd)
Once home to 1.9 million people, Detroit's population is now around 700,000. The official unemployment rate of about 20 percent only begins to describe the depth of the city's problems. Nearly half the residents of an average city pay taxes; in Detroit it's 11 percent. And whereas cities typically have around two people for each job, the ratio is four to one in the Motor City.

The city's tax base clearly needs to be revitalized, but neither casinos, new sports stadiums nor convention-center expansion have been equal to the task. It is of course naïve to think that any one initiative can reverse decades of decline, but Gary Wozniak, a retired business owner, business adviser and founder of the non-profit RecoveryPark, is taking a very different approach to renewal. And all he asks of city government is that it sell him some of Detroit's abandoned property.

When Wozniak looks at Detroit, he sees lots of open space; abundant water from the Detroit River and nearby lakes; built-out infrastructure; and a large--albeit low-skill--labor pool. To him, it adds up to the perfect recipe for a cluster of food-industry businesses.

Smaller farms could be woven around and throughout existing communities, but Wozniak's vision is for far more than urban farming. It includes indoor growing to provide products year-round, food manufacturing, processing, packaging, delivery and sales. He's even thought about what to do with waste. RecoveryPark would include an indoor tilapia farm to process, package and sell the waste to be used as an energy source and for fertilizer.

With some training, the vast majority of the jobs RecoveryPark creates could be performed by relatively low-skilled workers. Wozniak's research found that small farms create about one job for every two acres. When indoor growing, manufacturing, processing, packaging, delivery and sales were added, the Institute for a Competitive Inner City, one of RecoveryPark's partners, found the potential for 17.8 jobs per acre, or 17,800 jobs for 1,000 acres of land.

And land is certainly bountiful in Detroit. With de-population and properties being condemned and foreclosed, the city has about 30,000 abandoned acres.

Wozniak's current challenge is to communicate his vision to others. He has raised about $1.3 million out of a goal of $15 million in start-up funds and thinks he can raise another $3 million before the end of the year. The plan calls for RecoveryPark to be self-sustaining by its third year, thanks to licensing fees paid by the food companies that would sell products under the RecoveryPark brand. In addition to making the model sustainable, the money would be used to invest in and provide assistance to other food companies that share RecoveryPark's vision of "local, live and fresh" products.

On the political front, four community engagement meetings have been held. Wozniak hopes the city council will approve and Mayor Dave Bing will sign the zoning changes needed to make RecoveryPark a reality this winter. If that happens, planting will start in March. Using mostly borrowed money, the organization hopes to break ground on the indoor tilapia farm, which doesn't require zoning changes, at the beginning of 2013.

The usual suspects of government-led economic development have failed in Detroit. But Gary Wozniak isn't asking city government for much. "Just give us access to the land," he says. "From there, the market will take care of the rest."

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