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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

The Power of Planning: Growing Home, Chicago, Illinois

by Chris Lazarus

As natural and organic as it may be for urban agriculture ventures to blossom slowly, evolving in response to changing situations, one project in Chicago demonstrates the power of good planning and the importance of tapping into all possible allies and resources before sowing a single seed in compost. If preparation is any predictor, Growing Home is sure to be a success. It also takes advantage of a unique solution to the thorny problem of land tenure that derails many urban agriculture efforts.

The brainchild of Les Brown, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Growing Home was founded in 1995 as an independent corporation with its own board of directors. Its mission: to develop opportunities for homeless and low-income people to use neighborhood green spaces and organic agricultural enterprises to grow, connect with nature and community, attain food, living wage jobs, and self-reliance. CCH first had the idea in 1991 to grow plants for landscaping as a vehicle for job training and job creation for the homeless, but research showed that there was a growing demand for organic produce in the Chicago area, with most of it coming from California, Texas, and Florida. This created a supply and demand gap that entrepreneurial enterprises such as that envisioned by CCH can fill.

The project holds title to two sites. The first is a one-acre remediated brownfield where construction will begin in March 2000 on a passive solar greenhouse built by homeless adults in Growing Home’s pilot training program. Eventually there will also be a community garden. Although the remediated soil is still not clean enough to grow food, vegetables and herbs will be cultivated hydroponically or in raised beds of imported soil. This plot is located on the Near West Side, next to the ABLA Homes housing development, one of Chicago’s oldest and largest public housing communities. The Near West Side is a HUD-designated Empowerment Zone, where the median income in 1997 was $11,978; that for ABLA residents was $6,160.

The second site is an hour and a half drive from Chicago in LaSalle County and consists of 9.5 acres of fertile farmland and a half-acre of building and garage, formerly a National Weather Station. Here, Growing Home can raise the bulk of its organic produce, which it plans to sell primarily to restaurants, health food stores, and other markets, as well as at farmstands in the city.

The project also plans to create higher-margin, value-added products from what is grown. And down the road, Growing Home’s Director Daniel Goldfarb envisions a native plant nursery, agro-forestry program with native trees, and raising plants used for soil remediation of brownfields.

How did they get title to the land? In distributing federal surplus property (such as the former weather station), the Stuart B. McKinney Act specifies that organizations helping the homeless must be given priority when applying for ownership. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently awarded Growing Home the 10 acres in LaSalle County.

In 1992 before Growing Home was founded, CCH had won approval from HHS to build a greenhouse to train homeless people on a former U.S. Coast Guard landing at Navy Pier. But the city of Chicago had already agreed to include this property into the Navy Pier recreational tourist complex. The resulting negotiations between CCH and the city got the non-profit a far better deal: in exchange for giving up its right to the Navy Pier land, CCH/Growing Home was given title to the larger city-owned plot on the Near West Side. In addition, the city paid for the remediation, granted CCH/Growing Home free access to all Chicago’s farmers’ markets, and gave the organization a rent-free stall at Navy Pier to sell its produce and value-added products.

The city also provided start-up funding for Growing Home in the form of a Community Development Block Grant from the Department of Planning and Development. In addition, the Chicago Community Trust awarded a general operation and capital development grant. The Fannie Mae Foundation and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation have also lent their financial support to the project.

Other allies include community-based non-profits, such as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, DePaul University, which prepared a market analysis of what would sell at the Navy Pier stall, and individuals donating their expertise, such as financial executives Ed Gardner of GMAC-RFC and Michael Walker of MacDonald Investments, who are both helping with the business plan. Growing Home also signed a two-year cooperative agreement with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for technical and educational support of agricultural and forestry training. A nearby successful organic farm, Angelic Organics (Caledonia, Illinois), has offered the use of its learning center to train homeless in organic agriculture.

With this wide network of support and array of resources firmly rooted before one person is trained or one crop planted, it’s hard to believe Growing Home will do anything else but bear abundant fruit.

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