Upcoming food hub to reuse hospital building, support local economy

There's been growing interest in locally produced food throughout northwest Michigan in the past decade--so much so that farmers are having a difficult time keeping up with demand. But thanks to a group of forward-thinking partners and a $50,000 award from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, that might not be a problem much longer, as a regional food hub will be created in Traverse City.

Food hubs provide the mass production, aggregation, distribution and marketing that many farmers and ranchers are unable to provide due to their smaller operations. If all goes well, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons will welcome the hub into Building 58 by late 2014.

Donald Coe, managing partner at Black Star Farms, has been actively involved in the development of a regional food hub since the idea was first brought up.

"Our regional food hub is no longer a concept," says Coe. "We have a committed advisory group from a broad range of interests and community groups." He notes Robert Sirrine's role is vital, as project manager through Michigan State University Extension.

Funding has been awarded from Rotary Charities, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Although initial plans and a feasibility study have been completed, Coe says they're not quite past the finish line.

"Much needs to be done and we will require the financial resources to do so," he explains. "This is an evolving process involving many programs and efforts."

"An Important Community Asset"

Plans for the private-public partnership have the hub located inside Building 58, a former part of the Northern Michigan Asylum, which opened in 1885 and closed in 1989. The 55,000-square-foot building is considered to be one of the nation's largest historic preservation and reuse projects.

Ted Spitzer, president of Market Ventures Inc., a specialty urban planning and economic development firm, conducted the feasibility study.

"There's very little equipment left, but the bones of the building devised for food storage and production are still there," explains Spitzer, hinting at the old kitchens and storage space that was once used to serve hospital staff.

Ultimately, Spitzer and his firm have determined that "Building 58 is an important community asset that can be a food hub or regional market" and an invaluable tool to support farmers in the region.

"The central buyers of products would be supermarkets and anyone else who is interested in local food," Spitzer says, adding there's strong interest among public schools to offer more fresh products to their students.

It's all great news for Robert Minervini of the Minervini Group, a development organization interested in adaptive reuse and preservation of historic buildings which owns much of the Village, including Building 58.

Minervini sees redevelopment of the site as an opportunity to impact the local economy and compliment local eating habits.

"From the beginning, we have tried to create an environment for locally owned 'young' food and beverage companies," he explains.

Left Foot Charley Winery and Tasting Room, Higher Grounds Trading Company, Trattoria Stella Restaurant, and Pleasanton Bakery are examples of local businesses at The Village Minervini would like to see more of.

"Each of these businesses have received numerous accolades and are highly respected in their fields," he notes.

Anchor Institution

Robert Sirrine, community food systems educator with MSUE, has worked hand in hand with Minervini to move the project forward.

"The project has real potential to bolster the regional food system," Sirrine says. "We envision something akin to the new Grand Rapids Downtown Market. On a personal note, I grew up three blocks from the Village, so I would love to see this redevelopment occur."

Currently Sirrine is working with Susan Cocciarelli, community economic development specialist at Michigan State University, on behalf of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments to secure a $200,000 grant from MDARD. Funds would be used to help implement the project based on Spitzer's feasibility study.

"Because of the large upfront cost to rehab the building ($3-$4 million) and our grant deadlines, we are currently working with a consortium of farmers to purchase vegetable washing, processing, and packing equipment to be housed at Cherry Capital Foods," Sirrine explains. Cherry Capital Foods is a regional licensed agricultural distributor with which the food hub would partner.

Ultimately, all involved picture the new food hub as an anchor institution that will attract other businesses, new job opportunities, and provide farmers the ability to serve local needs on a year-round basis by offering affordable kitchen and processing spaces.

"Much evidence exists about the benefits of cluster developments and co-location businesses," notes Sirrine, highlighting the aforementioned restaurants, winery, bakery and coffee roaster as examples. "This project would build upon these successes and provide further economic development opportunities for the region."

Minervini sums up the purpose of the collaborative initiative, saying, "We keep more of our dollars local, we provide more opportunities for sustainable local agriculture, and we minimize reliance on ever-increasing transportation costs."

Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.
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