Pay Dirt

A resilient plot of land on the city's south side will soon grow jobs and a whole lot more

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It is a cool, sunny morning on the south side of Madison, the kind of morning with the promise of later-day heat. Just off the Beltline at Rimrock Road, in a vacant weedy lot next to an abandoned building, thirty or forty people are hanging out near a pile of dirt. At the head of the crowd stands a man, ordinary save for his exceptional height, a good foot taller than everybody else. Cars whiz past bullet-like on the Beltline, their drivers oblivious to the scene below.

The man to whom all those gathered—neighborhood citizens, teachers, students, civic leaders, board members, business owners and professors—are paying rapt attention is six-foot-seven, sixty-one-year-old Will Allen, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Bill Clinton pal and founder of internationally renowned, Milwaukee-based Growing Power. That dirt is not just dirt—it’s Allen’s powerful worm-nurtured soil, three years in the making and, to many, a kind of gritty black gold. This is not merely an abandoned school on a vacant lot—it’s the beginning of the Resilience Research Center, a bold new project its proponents claim will swiftly grow into a national model.

The project, spearheaded by the Center for Resilient Cities, Growing Power, Madison Gas and Electric and the immediate neighborhoods, will include a community center, a project-based middle school, a five-thousand-square-foot mixed-use development with neighborhood-focused businesses such as a restaurant and coffee shop, an MG&E Energy Services Center and several acres of intensive, year-round urban agriculture.

“This is really about a new industry,” says the surprisingly soft-spoken Allen, his Maryland-bred accent light and loose. “I predict within the next five years there’ll be hundreds or thousands of projects just like this around the country.”

Allen puts his head down, slides his shovel into the hot, rich dirt and quietly gets to work.

Take This Job and Shovel It

“Green-collar” jobs—essentially blue-collar opportunities with an environmental bent—are the hot new thing. In an economy where national unemployment rates teeter around ten percent, the promise of a burgeoning new industry is an attractive one. Obama banked on it, pledging to spend $150 billion over ten years to create five million green-collar jobs. Nearly 3,500 people attended the third annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference in Washington, D.C., in May, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headlined. The idea is green jobs are good for local economies, they’re good for the globe and they add a bit of cachet to a movement long associated with
passion rather than riches.

Will Allen“We treat our forty-plus employees very well,” says Allen, who reportedly makes $80,000 a year as CEO of his Growing Power of Milwaukee. “It’s one thing to get folks all hyped up, but we have to be able to create these jobs, real living wage green jobs. That’s one of our principles at Growing Power, and we want to be an example because it can happen.”

Allen, a former NBA player and the son of sharecroppers, started farming in the city of Milwaukee in 1993 and by 1995 founded a nonprofit urban ag growing and training center, later called Growing Power. Allen’s goal is to grow safe, healthy, affordable food in urban areas, creating community as a by-product—and somewhere along the way he became famous for his methods. Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Oprah, the New York Times, and Time magazine have all lauded Allen’s efforts, and to list his speaking engagements, awards and recognitions here would take a full magazine page—literally—but if you ask Allen, the real stars here are the worms.

“They’re my most valuable employees,” he says.

It’s Allen’s red worms infiltrating his composted soil that allow him to create the rich black worm tea that can be thrown down anywhere—atop asphalt or weedy grass—to grow edible plants without space issues or worry of ground contaminants rampant in most city soil. And not only are these urban gardens organic, they’re highly productive.

“We grow about five dollars per square foot, which equates to about $200,000 an acre,” says Allen. “So this is different from Grandfather’s row crop type farming, which yielded about five hundred dollars per acre. It’s an expensive proposition up front, but on the back end it’s really gonna yield a lot of production.”

And jobs. On Madison’s Resilience Research Center site, thirty to fifty green jobs will come from the initial construction alone, and hundreds more could follow in staffing the restaurant and café, expertly maintaining the gardens and greenhouses, or any number of other ventures on campus. The project will likely attract worldwide attention, just as Growing Power has in Milwaukee, recent host of three national conferences thanks to Allen. The possibilities, it would seem, are endless.

Vision, dollars and direction

Imagine a self-contained, highly productive, culturally rich food and community utopia. Four acres, every square inch of it in sustainable use, right here in the city. Hoop houses arched protectively over beds of vegetables throughout the winter, edible perennials shaded by nut trees all summer long, ponds filled with farm fish whose waste is anything but, feeding the floating beds of plants above. Imagine a middle school where students, rather than sitting through six, fifty-minute classes, spend the day putting their hands on projects that integrate all subjects. Imagine a community center and a business where food is grown, harvested, marketed, sold and consumed. Imagine dozens or even hundreds of green-collar jobs, from construction to gardening to teaching to business management. Imagine the money recycled back into the neighborhood. Imagine food scraps recycled into compost and raked throughout, best practices spread through the neighborhood and harvested again, a cycle churning in perpetuity like a blade through soil.

Tom Dunbar“It’s happening, and it’s actually moving very quickly,” says Tom Dunbar, a landscape architect and executive director of the Center for Resilient Cities. “The concept is five years, and at seven or eight months we’re already this far along. It’s a very aggressive schedule, but it also responds to integrated project delivery, where you really focus and bring all partners in and do things slightly differently than you would do in a normal public bid situation.”

For Dunbar, green jobs are anything but new.

“You could say I’ve had a green job since 1969,” says Dunbar. “I designed my first rain garden in 1972. My entire
professional career has been oriented to the combination of land and people.”

The Center for Resilient Cities is a Madison- and Milwaukee-based nonprofit whose mission is to help urban citizens and governments create healthy, economically attractive environments. They’re the ones working on Madison’s land transfer for the proposed Central Park, and a driving force behind revitalizing Troy Gardens as we know it today.

Last July, members of the Madison Community Land Trust and the Community Action Coalition approached Dunbar about the four-acre parcel at Badger and Rimrock roads, then owned by Dane County. The county was looking to sell, and the CRC had to make a quick decision. Dunbar says it was an easy one, because so many of the partners fit so well together. Community Groundworks, the organization that runs Troy Gardens, and Sustain Dane came on board. Proponents of the Badger Rock Charter School entered the picture, seeing a perfect fit for the project-based charter school proposal they’d been working on for two years. The CRC already had a long-standing relationship with Growing Power, which was looking for a more permanent Madison location to supplement the work farmer Robert Pierce is doing at Avant Gardens of McFarland. It all felt right.

By January 2010, the CRC, through community contributions and a $20,000 donation from MG&E, had raised $220,000 beyond the necessary $500,000 to purchase the land. The final project calls for an additional $8 to $14 million for completion, but it will be built in modules—beginning this fall with the deconstruction of Badger School, recycle and reuse of at least eighty percent of the old structure’s
materials. The CRC is working with Hoffman and Associates of Appleton, the design group responsible for the new Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, which received the most U.S. Green Building Council LEED points of any project in the country. For Dunbar, however, sustainability is about so much more than green building—it’s about a society’s ability to adapt to change, and there’s no predicting what the next big green trend will be—what remains is people, and their ability to evolve well together.

“The notion of green jobs is legitimate but we’re doing resilient jobs,” says Dunbar. “Talking about sustainability is good, but if we don’t look at how we foster the ability of neighborhoods and cities to adapt to change in a positive way, sustainability won’t mean much.”

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