Food production campus aims to help entrepreneurs get started (Baltimore Sun, 10/27/2014)

Source: Baltimore Sun
Date: November 27, 2014
Byline: Yvonne Wenger

A Baltimore-based nonprofit is preparing to build a commercial kitchen on a blighted tract in East Baltimore, the first step in the creation of a $16 million food production campus.

American Communities Trust plans to use a 31/2-acre parcel at Gay and Wolfe streets — the site of a 19th-century city water pumping station — for the kitchen, a canning facility, a working farm and a produce market. Together, they are intended as a place where entrepreneurs can rent space to launch a food business and workers can be taught culinary skills.

The campus, to be called the Baltimore Food Hub, will “help build the regional food economy by supporting business and creating jobs,” said Greg Heller, CEO of American Communities Trust.

City officials signed off this month on a deal to sell the land to the nonprofit for $500,000. Nearly all of the mortgage would be forgiven if the full scope of the project comes to fruition.

Heller said seven drums of hazardous waste have been removed from the site and other environmental remediation is under way to get it ready for construction next year.

The cooks, bakers and farmers who would rent space at the facility are expected to sell their products to local restaurants and college dining halls, including at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University, Heller said.

Andrew B. Frank, Hopkins’ economic development chief, said the university supports the project as an extension of the East Baltimore Development Inc. project, a nearly $2 billion public-private redevelopment effort just north of the Hopkins medical campus.

Frank said the kitchen incubator will give residents a chance to “start a business, create permanent jobs, and build wealth.”

“As an anchor institution, Johns Hopkins, with lots of hungry students who are demanding fresher, locally sourced foods, can and should be a customer for the kitchen incubator entrepreneurs,” Frank said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has praised the food hub project as way to offer city residents healthy food choices while boosting economic opportunity.

Kerry DeVilbiss of the Baltimore Development Corp. said American Communities Trust will pay the city $50,000 for the land. The city will hold a $450,000 mortgage until the project reaches certain benchmarks.

The property, which hasn’t been occupied since at least 2011, was last used as a maintenance facility for the city Department of Transportation, DeVilbiss said.

Developing the tract, which is visible along the tracks leading to Penn Station, will also help the city’s efforts to improve the view of Baltimore people see on the train, she said.

She said the hub is projected to create about 100 jobs.

“They are ready and eager to break ground,” DeVilbiss said of the nonprofits involved.

Money for the $5.7 million first phase of the project is coming from a combination of private grants and state and federal funds, Heller said. The money will pay for construction of the kitchen, stormwater management, landscaping, site grading, environmental cleanup and the stabilization of several historical structures on the property.

The first phase of the project is also expected to feature a farmers’ market with products grown on site and elsewhere locally. Produce will be grown on the campus in raised beds filled with soil, Heller said.

The $10.6 million second phase will include creation of a canning facility and renovation of the historic buildings, which were part of the city water system’s Eastern Pumping Station and date back to the 1890s.

The historic buildings will provide another 30,000 square feet of space to be used for offices, more markets and additional food production space, Heller said.

American Communities Trust is partnering on the project with the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition.

Edward Sabatino, who runs the coalition, said his group has raised about $2.25 million in government and private funding to contribute toward the $3.5 million cost of building the kitchen.

The kitchen will offer budding food businesses a place they can rent to cook or bake for clients. It will be fully licensed and insured, he said.

Entrepreneurs will be able to rent the space by the hour, he said.

“If you’re a catering business and you don’t have enough space to prepare 50 meals, you could rent the space for four hours,” Sabatino said. New businesses also could receive help in accessing small loans they may need.

Heller said rentals are expected to supplement a culinary training program. Similar programs elsewhere train about 50 people a year, but the scale of the program in Baltimore hasn’t been determined.

“We’re going to train individuals in culinary skills, and provide them with a certification used in the industry,” Heller said.

Heller said he was involved in the creation of a similar program in Philadelphia, the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprise, which opened about two years ago. He said about 135 shared-use commercial kitchen facilities operate around the country.

The first food hub employee is expected to be hired within the next month to begin working with interested entrepreneurs. A focus will be on helping low-income, minority and immigrant entrepreneurs, he said.

“What we will we do is make you feel comfortable and provide you with commercial kitchen space and job training and state-of-the-art food production and packing equipment,” Heller said.

Heller said he hopes the food hub can be transformative for the city.

“Baltimore City can finally harness the potential of the food economy for creating local development opportunities and jobs,” he said. “There is so much potential, and we’re not taking advantage of to its fullest extent.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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