Two taxpayer-backed efforts centered around local food production — the Public Market and Garver Feed Mill — are moving along on separate tracks, sparking concerns about competition with each other and the underutilized Northside FEED Kitchen.
“It’s a question we should be asking,” said David Wallner, a member of the city’s Garver Feed Mill Criteria and Selection Committee.
On Tuesday, the city is holding a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the Goodman Community Center to get input on the business plan for a Public Market at First and East Johnson streets. A second meeting is scheduled for June 3 to discuss the plan with potential Public Market vendors.
The city has committed $5.6 million to the Public Market and is hoping to leverage additional state or federal monies along with a private fundraising campaign. A recent consultant’s report said a fully developed Public Market District on First Street featuring a new civic space could generate $14 million in sales annually.
That business plan from the Project for Public Spaces of New York City calls for redeveloping the city’s garage at First and East Johnson streets into a retail, wholesale and food production facility featuring a demonstration kitchen, restaurants, brewery, wine bar and outdoor spaces.
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing between the city and Baum Development of Chicago for a proposed $19 million redevelopment of the Garver Feed Mill into a food production facility that could feature everything from a craft liquor distillery to demonstration gardens with grape vines and hops. Several local companies have already expressed interest in locating there including Calliope Ice Cream, Just Coffee, Old Sugar Distillery, Wisconsin Urban Wood and Potter’s Crackers.
The City Council has budgeted $1.8 million for the Garver project and selected Baum’s proposal over three others in an effort to see a private sector developer rescue the crumbling structure behind Olbrich Gardens. A similar effort to redevelop Garver collapsed amid the real estate bust several years ago.
Despite the similarities of the two projects, city economic development specialist Dan Kennelly doesn’t see a problem. In fact, he sees it as a positive.
“These are two different projects that complement one another and are both part of building a stronger food system,” he said.
But Wallner said he raised the issue with Baum Development when it was making its presentation and he continues to be concerned about potential overlap of the two projects. He said he had personally favored a plan to turn the site into affordable housing.
“The developers told us over and over that this shouldn’t compete with what will go in at the public market but I’m not so sure,” he said. “We’ve also got so many other neighborhood farmers' markets around the city.”
Baum Development is best known for developing the Green Exchange in Chicago, a former factory converted into a national epicenter for green businesses and organizations.
Northside Ald. Rebecca Kemble said she is worried about the potential impact on the FEED Kitchen on North Sherman Avenue, about 1.5 miles away from the Public Market site.
“Garver will provide larger scale, wholesale production space for well-established food businesses, and the Public Market is more about retail sales and smaller scale production space,” she said. “But I'm more concerned about how the smaller scale production space will affect the already existing FEED Kitchen.”
The FEED Kitchen was opened in 2013 as a way to give small businesses access to a large production facility while also allowing entrepreneurs to test their ideas without a lot of initial overhead. An initial business plan called for the facility to operate at full capacity by 2016 but it has struggled to find enough users, although Kemble said things have been picking up this year.
Kemble said the Northside Economic Development Coalition has already been meeting to discuss how to “build synergies and connections around the existing players in the food industry from workforce development to production to distribution and sales.”
Kemble said the goal is to develop plans for 2015-2016 to help grow the Northside “food ecosystem” by connecting existing entities like the FEED kitchen, Troy Gardens, Northside Farmers' Market, Madison College Culinary Program, River Food Pantry, Mad City Bazaar and retail food outlets in an effort to bring more food-related development to that part of the city.
Downtown Ald. Ledell Zellers said it was important to remember that many decisions still need to be made regarding the Public Market but thinks there is enough interest in local foods to make it happen.
"The Garver site is but one of the things that will need to be a part of the bigger picture when decisions are made," she said.