Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wisconsin group to transform old armory to indoor farm staffed by returning vets

When NeighborWorks Green Bay (WI) bought 815 Chicago St. in 2002, the organization assumed it would rehabilitate the building, like the others it purchased, into multi-unit housing. What wasn’t known at the time, however, was that the building, an old armory that long ago served the needs of local military families, had 14-inch-thick cement slab floors that made the cost of redevelopment prohibitively expensive. So the building sat vacant, waiting for the day when it would be demolished.

Workers clear debris from the old armory.
Today, after the better part of a decade spent in a holding pattern, there is budding hope that the old armory will get its long-deserved rebirth. As part of a partnership between NeighborWorks Green Bay and local green agro-businesses, the old armory is being assessed for its potential as Green Bay’s first indoor farm. The idea sprouted after Noel Halvorsen, executive director of NeighborWorks Green Bay, participated in a local social-innovation leadership program and learned about creative urban farming projects around the country. Shortly thereafter, Halvorsen was contacted by local hydroponics specialists who also saw potential in the armory.

Research now is underway to
determine what crops would
grow best in the "Farmory."
When completed, the “Farmory” – as it has come to be known – will not only supply food locally throughout the year but will also operate as an agricultural learning center with a focus on training returning veterans.

“We think converting the armory back into service as a training center for military folks returning from overseas would be a great life for the building and an asset for the neighborhood,” Halvorsen says.. The project is undergoing rigorous business planning and analysis to test its feasibility and the results to date are promising. NeighborWorks Green Bay hopes in the next few months to have a full business plan and training curriculum in place, with construction well underway in 2014.

It is this kind of creative thinking that characterizes NeighborWorks Green Bay’s success in the northeast region of Wisconsin it serves. The organization, which is celebrating its 20th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, started out as a small-scale local initiative that offered tool lending, homeownership preservation and small “scrape-and-paint” projects. Over the years, the geography it serves has grown, as has its local partnerships and programming.

For example, another creative local project that NeighborWorks Green Bay is spearheading is a volunteer time bank.  The time bank, led by a team that the organization sent to NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute two years ago, is an online system for recording and rewarding volunteer exchanges, enabling local “Samaritans” to capitalize on their skills. For example, one person can exchange an hour earned walking a neighbor’s dogs to get his or her home repainted. The plan received initial support from a CLI planning grant and is in a test phase this winter to evaluate the software platform. Next February, NeighborWorks Green Bay plans to launch it publicly in select neighborhoods before hopefully introducing it community-wide in the summer.

By bringing together unique local assets through innovative projects and programs, NeighborWorks Green Bay is building a better community.

Written by Lydia Wileden, program specialist for community stabilization at NeighborWorks America.