Wednesday, April 15, 2009

City going full circle

I'm still not sure what I think of the Hantz Group's plans to bring full-scale commercial farming to Detroit. There just aren't enough details yet, though this web chat with Matt Allen answers a lot of questions.

On the plus side, a large farm will put vacant land back to use, generate tax revenue for the city, and draw positive publicity from around the world. Best yet, it could help break the stigma that mars Detroit's abandoned lots. Most of this vacant land would be fairly easy to build on (red tape and taxes aside), but developers don't even consider it because of its fallen history. Vacant land in Detroit is just presumed worthless. A successful reuse project could change the perception of Detroit's vacant lots from an albatross to an opportunity.

Now for the caveats, mostly based on speculation:

  • A third of the city's land is vacant, but most of it isn't contiguous. Will a farm displace people? By what process and for what compensation? In the web chat, someone asked if "people [would] be asked to move or relocated, or would the farm just go up around them? " Matt Allen responded, "... both. Our intention is to have the area inside the farm site empty."
  • How much tax revenue will it really generate? When asked, Allen wrote, "well that is to be determined but we cant pay 81 mils, we are at the point where that is being discussed along with other issues." That is to say, Allen wants a special lower tax rate for the farm -- "an ag rate." Will other businesses get to pay this new lower rate or just them?
  • What about pesticides and other runoff? Allen says MSU Extension is partnering with the farm to monitor the environmental impact, but it's worth worrying about. This won't be an organic farm. Allen says they'll be using "conventional ag methods" -- and conventional agriculture methods are toxic.
  • How will the farm be secured? Are we talking cornstalks surrounded by barbed wire? This could look great or look terrible depending on the measures they take.
  • And what about Matt Allen? I don't advocate guilt by association, but he is Kwame Kilpatrick's former Press Secretary after all (and he's been publicly arrested for domestic abuse). That does invite a certain level of scrutiny.
In short, I eagerly await their business plan.


Todd Scott said...

Hantz not Hertz. :)

Hadn't see the live chat link -- thanks!

Marc Couillais said...

Have not yet seen the web chat but am really really not in favor, as an urban agriculture advocate. Urban Agriculture has many many social benefits. It helps to regrow cities by connecting people and producing value, not by creating large corporate farms that will saturate the market with "local" food and drive many small, community focused farms out of business. Many of these small farms are doing amazing things for their communities and really are surviving on subsidies and grants. To take away their one possible revenue stream to self sufficiency would be a tragedy, I feel.

Cooper said...

Good catch, Todd. I've fixed it.

And I have the same concerns, Marc. The president of Greening of Detroit sounded quite skeptical too in that Free Press article. This commercial venture lacks almost all the qualities that make small-scale urban gardens so appealing -- youth education, nutrition programs, neighborhood beautification, community building.

But there's something to be said for profitability, tax revenue, and the large scale of the enterprise, given the abundance of vacant land. The question may be whether the two approaches to urban agriculture can peaceably coexist. If not, my allegiance lies with community gardening.

Anonymous said...

Nice coverage. My own musings here...

Diana said...

Although I've been a huge proponent of urban agriculture and community gardening, I've been conflicted about this too.

In Detroit's current zoning law, there's no room for urban ag as an organization/individual's primary purpose. Schools and nonprofits have been able to get away with it because they have other programming besides those tied to food production. Greening of Detroit has been trying to wade through zoning law for the past year or two to get their Market Garden near Eastern Market through the legal process, but zoning in Detroit is a hard thing to change.

With that in mind, I would think that Hantz, with his political clout, could speed along that process to the benefit of other organizations who have been trying to do the same thing. But when I mentioned this to Kami Pathukuchi (professor at Wayne State of the Cities and Food class for those who don't know), she immediately turned the idea down of any possible benefit to local ag groups. She said that Hantz would bring in all that's undesirable about the current food system into the city. Malik from the Black Community Food Security Network, who spoke about it briefly, said that in our capitalist system, nothing is sacred. All they can do is try to keep the movement on the grassroots.

I agree with that - if someone can make money off it, they'll find a way to do it. Because community gardening and urban agriculture have emerged as such viable options for Detroit, someone's bound to come, whether it be Hantz or another corporation, to capitalize off its success. In my mind, we have to find a way to figure out how this can help to facilitate our own desires for revitalization, creating some kind of compromise.

Also, something you didn't mention - the plans are for an 80 acre lot, or 0.125 square miles. To me, this isn't a huge plot, although it might contribute to the slippery slope of further large-scale farming in the city.