Old military armory could be indoor farm
By SCOTT COOPER WILLIAMS
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — An old military armory that has gone unused for years could be resurrected as Green Bay’s first indoor farm, with crops yielding food throughout the year.
Water Works Garden Supply is leading an effort to transform the former armory at 815 Chicago St. into an operation that would supply area restaurants and grocery stores.
The development would give Green Bay residents their first look at a hot trend that has seen empty warehouses in Chicago, Milwaukee and elsewhere retrofitted for urbanized agriculture.
It also would bring new life to a long-forgotten military outpost that was once a hub of activity for soldiers and their families, but has since fallen into such disrepair that demolition was looming.
Tentatively known as “The Farmory,” the new indoor enterprise for growing mushrooms, greens and other products could be up and running as soon as next summer.
Fran Toutloff, owner of Water Works Garden Supply, said he hopes not only to build a successful business, but also to introduce other Green Bay residents and would-be entrepreneurs to the potential of farming in an urban setting.
“It should be a pretty neat place,” Toutloff said. “We have a great concept.”
The armory, built in the early 1900s, outlived its usefulness to the military community not long after World War II. The two-story building was briefly converted into a warehouse, but it has since stood vacant and has deteriorated badly.
The nonprofit housing group NeighborWorks bought the property in 2006 and tried unsuccessfully to find a developer who would turn it into condominiums. Demolition has since been discussed more than once as an alternative.
NeighborWorks officials are excited about the indoor farm concept as a way of both reviving the armory and bringing something new and cutting-edge into the community.
Noel Halvorsen, executive director of NeighborWorks, said he and others have visited urban agriculture prototypes elsewhere and are confident they can replicate those operations inside Green Bay’s 20,000-square-foot structure.
“We’ve certainly got a lot of learning to do, but we’ll be able to make something work,” Halvorsen said. “We think it’s a good fit.”
Details are still being worked out on the business plan, the operating partnership, and the lease that Toutloff’s group would need to take over the armory. The building needs extensive repairs, including a new roof, new windows, new flooring and heating and air-conditioning upgrades.
The tentative budget of $1.5 million calls for $600,000 in building improvements, as well as an elaborate lighting system to simulate sunlight for crops growing during Green Bay’s long, dark winters.
Farming experts familiar with the concept of growing inside converted warehouses say the armory appears suitable for a sizable and successful enterprise.
“I think that’s a great possibility to produce food there,” said consultant Luke Wojcik, who has examined the building. Wojcik, owner of Twin Elm Gardens in Pulaski, specializes in raising some of the same sorts of crops that would be grown inside the armory.
The operation, at least initially, would focus on various types of mushrooms and microgreens, which are small plants used on salads and sandwiches, much like sprouts.
Since opening three years ago at 243 N. Broadway, Water Works Garden Supply has developed systems for indoor growing of microgreens that are popular in restaurants, such as chives and peas. Among its first customers was the nearby Chefusion restaurant, 307 N. Broadway.
Chefusion owner Tony Phillips said his customers appreciate the quality and freshness of locally grown products. Citing the scarcity of such supplies, Phillips said he suspects other restaurants would become customers, too, if a large-scale growing operation were established in the old armory.
“It’s exactly what we need and what the future of the business is,” he said.
In comparison with Water Works’ current production of 40 flats of microgreens in a typical week, Toutloff calculates that the armory would give him space to multiple his harvest “by the thousands,” yielding perhaps 1,000 pounds or more in fresh produce every week. In addition to restaurants, he hopes to supply farmers markets and grocery stores, including the proposed New Leaf Market store on Main Street.
Toutloff said the armory’s wide-open concrete interior offers ideal conditions for an indoor farm.
“We’re going to grow crops inside this building that are made for it,” he said.
For its innovative approach to addressing societal issues, the Farmory project has won a $15,000 grant from a consortium that includes the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation. The money will be used to advance planning efforts that began several months ago.
When the facility opens for business, Toutloff hopes to focus hiring of employees on low-income people and military veterans, to teach them new farming skills that they could use to start their own urban agriculture businesses. He also is considering offering structured curriculum for others interested in learning the business.
Potential partners in the endeavor include Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and E Hub, a program for entrepreneurs.
Halvorsen said he was pleased that military veterans would be included in the latest incarnation of the armory. Just as the facility once served the military, he said, it could now play a part in giving veterans a sense of purpose again.
“Soldiers trained there years ago to serve the community,” he said. “And raising food is certainly a community service in a lot of ways.”
Information from: Press-Gazette Media, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com