Aiming to bolster the flow of regional products into Madison, the city is exploring the feasibility of using part of the former Oscar Mayer plant as a wholesale food distribution and storage facility.
The city last week selected a Maryland consultant to examine the food facility concept, budgeting up to $100,000 for the work. The envisioned facility would be a wholesale hub that would serve suppliers and purchasers and include loading docks, warehouses and cold storage for short-term use.
Given the ongoing effort to reuse and revitalize the former Oscar Mayer buildings and the necessary infrastructure for such a food terminal already in place, the East Side property is one of three sites the consultant — Agricultural and Community Development Services — will study, said George Reistad, the city’s food policy coordinator.
“This is a real, tangible place with actual infrastructure in place,” Reistad said.
The facility would include a “cross-dock” component, essentially a bay of loading docks that allows food to be quickly moved off larger interstate trucks onto “last-mile” delivery vehicles.
Lindsey Day Farnsworth, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, said such a facility would reduce the barriers to entry for small- and medium-size growers to getting their products into the Madison area.
“This type of infrastructure would make it possible for different sizes of growers and buyers to organize and come to this facility to either drop product off or pick it up,” she said.
Nate Ellis, senior vice president of real estate at Rabin Worldwide, one of two companies that owns the former Oscar Mayer property, said such a project would be a good fit in repurposing the buildings.
“When I’m talking about regional and local businesses, this is exactly what I’m talking about,” Ellis said of the concept.
Aside from the former meat packaging plant at 910 Mayer Ave., the consultant is required to identify and study two other sites in the Madison area: another building that could be leased and a property where the food facility could be built.
“We want to acknowledge that there’s also other potential sites in the Madison area that would be a good fit, so we want them to do a comparative site analysis,” said Day Farnsworth, whose university center is assisting the city in exploring the idea.
The food terminal could serve smaller grocery stores and institutional buyers, such as hospitals and large businesses, looking to reduce their wholesale cost of food, she said.
Day Farnsworth said the facility also has the potential to expand the market for regional growers so they can move their product into larger metropolitan areas such as Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities.
Reistad said the proximity of the former Oscar Mayer site to the FEED Kitchens, where commercial kitchens can be rented, and the proposed location of the Madison Public Market plays into the idea that the area “could be a food innovation district.”
The money for the study is coming as a grant from the city-funded Healthy Retail Access Program. Reistad said the city “isn’t necessarily in the position where we want to build the thing or manage the thing” but would collaborate with private-sector entities who might be able to finance it.
“You don’t ever try to move into something without knowing what the foundation looks like and what is actually doable,” Reistad said.
The consultant is expected to start work on the study in early 2019 with an analysis comparing the three sites to be completed within four months. All work, including a business plan, economic impact study and an assessment of community benefits, is scheduled to be wrapped up six months after the start of the study.