Plans are cooking for a commercial kitchen incubator

Innovation is spreading to the kitchen, with incentives both financial and social. Washtenaw County officials and other area organizations are assessing the potential for a commercial kitchen incubator to open in the county. The project, which is in the early planning and needs assessment phase, has a triumvirate of goals: to provide jobs training for chronically unemployed people in the foods and agri-business sector; to improve the low income population's access to healthy, locally-grown foods; and to support food business development.

"The local food industry is a growing industry, and a lot of people are making their own products in their basements and kitchens and so forth," says Tony VanDerworp, project manager for Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development. "We could not only help train some of our residents in various jobs in the food sector but also help grow companies through this project."

Potential tenants are being surveyed to assess the regional demand for such a facility. That demand would dictate the size of any potential facility, from an existing 600 square-foot church kitchen to a 15,000 square-foot building. "We envision enough kitchen space to accommodate several tenants," VanDerworp says.

A specific location is still to be determined, but could possibly be on the eastern side of the county in order to provide easier access to lower-income residents lacking transportation, he says. A nominal rent will be charged to tenants, who will also get business support services.

"Their goal might be to sell at the farmers market, their goal might be to start a business, their goal might be to start a product line or a catering company," VanDerworp notes.

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has set up a task force with representatives from the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor SPARK and others.

Various funding sources, which could be a mix of philanthropy and grants, including federal workforce development monies for worker training, are under consideration. After the tenant survey is reviewed, larger institutions and food prep companies will be surveyed as to their demand for trained workers.

"This is all the due diligence kind of things you would do, with an added twist that we're going to delve very deeply into how we can train and place people. That's our main goal," says VanDerworp.

A go or no-go decision will be made by early summer, he adds.

Source: Tony VanDerworp, project manager for Washtenaw County's Office of Community and Economic Development
Writer: Tanya Muzumdar
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