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The Party Farm

Detroit's Central Train Station. Now Empty.I'm not a scientist and I'm not a politician. I'm just a ski bum,  but I'm very concerned about our enviornment.  Living in Aspen at an elevation of 7908 ft. for the past 10 years I feel as if I can see the climate changing right before my eyes.  From the top of Aspen Mountain you can see for a hundred miles or more.  You can see the weather blowing in with a 360 degree view.  I'm worried...very worried.

Sure...I'm a rational guy...and I understand that weather patterns are cyclical...and that there has always been a changing climate.  But during the recent election process I encountered many seemingly smart people who would not even acknowledge that there is a problem with our enviornment.  They wanted to debate semantics and they chastised me for using the terms "global warming" and "climate change".  I tried to provide an explanation for my concerns about the environment by using a few simple personal examples:

* March 2012 was the hottest in Colorado history.  It was 60 degrees or hotter for 30 straight days.  June may not have been record setting for heat...but it was close.  Cyclical??? Maybe.   But 10 of the hottest years on record have occured in the past 13 years (according to a Michigan State University Professor).

* SNIRT:  An unusal wind event in the Utah desert created snow clouds filled with red dirt which later produced snow mixed with that dirt (hence Snirt) here in Aspen.  You could see the Snirt layers on the roof tops.  The Snirt had a terribly negative effect on the skiing and it caused the snow to melt much faster than normal.  One friend said..."we've been having sand storms for a 1000 years...read the bible".

*The Colorado River is drying up:  I drove 1000 miles from San Diego to Aspen.  The route is beautiful...but this Summer...the land looked like scorched earth.  The Mighty Colorado appeared to be extremely low.   Did I get out of my car to measure the water levels?...no.  Did I feel an immediate sense of urgency just by...you know, eyeballin' it?   Yes.   Did I see all the neon lights in Las Vegas...and for the first time think about the drain that the city of sin has on The Mighty Colorado.  Turn up the A/C in the cabana, bro.

*Snow conditions.  2011/12 was the worst season I've seen in Aspen.  It was a difficult Winter in many other ski resorts too.  Maybe it was just an off year?  I truly believe that the quality and consistency of our POW POW is changing much faster than anyone (even Al Gore) predicted or wants to admit.    Our POW is getting heavier and wetter. Why?   Because the whole planet is getting warmer.  I don't really know much about the polar ice caps or glaciers...but I know they are melting like MoFos.

Super Storm Sandy:  'nuff said.

So I decided to try to do something.  I want to be a man of action.  I want to get my hands dirty.  How can I make a difference??? 

Detroit. City of the Future. I hope so.In August I was visiting my hometown of Detroit, Michigan and I accidently got lost in a very rough neighborhood on the East side of the Detroit.  Driving around, I saw burned out buildings, crack ho's &  acres and acres of abandoned, barren, trash-infested, vacant land.  I won't say I had a vision or an epiphany...but something like that.  I visualized acres and acres of farm land...right there in the City of Detroit.  Honestly,  this was not a new idea, but I could see it...right there in my mind.  People have been talking about urban farming in Detroit for years.   Detroit's Mayor, Dave Bing (former NBA star) wants to do it.  The City wants to do it. Michigan State wants to do it.  The Detroit Public Schools (DPS) want to do it.  DPS has lots of deserted school buildings and playgrounds.  All told, Detroit has more than 50,000 acres of vacant land within the city limits.  The land includes desolate former industrial sites, and once thriving residential neighborhoods that have been razed to the ground in addition to all the voided school yards.  The population in Detroit has dropped from 2.1 million to 700,000 in the past 20 years. I saw it....in my head,  Farm land... what else could it be?  It clicked in.  Growing local fruits and vegetables theoretically can produce better, healthier, fresher food...and save on transportation costs to boot.  Farming could be used to help educate an urban society (mostly African American) that sorely needs to learn to fend for itself.

Fortunately I'm still well connected back in the 313.  I made a few calls and was referred to Dr. Richard Foster, a professor at Michigan State (my alma mater) who is in charge of Food, Society and Sustainability at MSU.   Foster has a vision to make Detroit an "innovation center" for sustainable farming for the next generation.  Detroit has the land, the access to fresh water and the need to re-create itself for the 21st Century.  Foster's plan is just the type of large-scale project that I had visualized. I returned to Detroit to meet with Dr. Foster and others about the prospects of my pitching in.  When I asked Dr. Foster what was holding him back...he replied with a one-word answer, "money".  I thought to myself...that's not a problem...I know every rich guy in the State.  Maybe I could get this thing going in Detroit.  I felt like I could be the catalyst for change. 

That was before I saw all the hurdles.  

Initially my objective for getting involved with urban farming was for the "greater good".  It was an opportunity to give something back and to create something out of nothing.  We could produce food locally,  build an engaged community around self-sustaining agriculture.   Could I raise $100 million to make this a reality???  Maybe...I've done it before.  MSU thought I could help them raise the money.  I knew that  to be successful at fund raising,  I would need to be passionate about the project.   I would need to be immersed in urban farming and food production.  I would need to believe my own sales pitch. 

So I started kicking the tires.  I set up some meetings.  Drove around.  Asked a lot of questions. I got the VIP treatment from the Quicken Loans executive team. Quicken, Rock Financial, Dan Gilbert and his host of entities are making an impact in Downtown Detroit. They are making great strides and they may single handedly bring back the city.  I met with The Greening of Detroit, a non-profit that has been planting trees in the City since 1989.   I spoke to the President of Hantz Farms who has been promoting the concept of urban farming in Detroit for 5 years.  Hantz has 180 acres tied up and $30 million dedicated to urban farming...but they have yet to plant a seed.   I toured the city and saw some impressive and very productive "Market Gardens" (3 acres or less).  Market Gardens fall below city laws that prohibit commercial farming.  Those laws are expected to be changed.  When?   No body knows.  There are already 1600 gardens in Detroit...but comprising only 300 acres...a drop in the bucket.   The farming efforts were highly fragmented. 

I dove deeper into the culture. A culture in which I had been raised in.  I checked out some of the new energy happening in Detroit. Campus Martius, Cork Town, The Eastern Market etc.  I ate at a few of the new places downtown...and some of the old ones.  I hung out after dark to see what happens at night.  I attended the World Series and cheered my a$$ off for the Detroit Tigers.   I could feel the energy, the positivism...for the first time in decades Detroit was on the upswing.

I was fired up.  Enough talk...let's do this.  Call it phase 1.   Let's find 3 acres, move some soil, plant some seeds and produce some food.  We'll see what happens...get the ball rolling.  If PARTY FARMS could become a self-sustaining entity...then anyone could do it.  The Party Farm could be the first step in a much more grandiose plan, with MSU, with the City etc.  My friends in the suburbs were laughing at me.  The naysayers were abundant.   More meetings..with Michigan State, with The Greening of Detroit.  A sit down at the Green Garage an environmentally friendly co-working space.   More talk.   I hadn't yet approached the City Government or the Detroit Public Schools... but already the bureaucracy and resistance was palpable.  I couldn't get my arms around the economics.  It became apparent very quickly that this was going to be a very difficult and uphill battle.  I was looking to do something out of the box, altruistic, for the greater good.  But I didn't want to bang my head against the wall.

Let it Grow, Let it Grow.I requested some basic info from MSU about creating a 3 acre market garden.  Start-up costs, projected revenues, a time-line for growing season,  ways to maximize production.  A brief outline would have been sufficient.   I would have thought that a big-time Agricultural school like MSU could get that cranked out in a few minutes.  Basic stuff...farming 101.  I'm still waiting for the information. I hit the library myself in an attempt to quantify and project what I could produce on 3 acres.  I even looked at a few prospective sites.   I had a very hot restaurant interested in buying brussles sprouts...if I could grow them.

It was only 30 days...but I learned plenty.  I came to the conclusion that an entrepreneur like myself could not really count on much help, if any from the HUGE institutions with whom I was trying to collaborate.  Even though my motivation was purely altruistic, support from "the man" appeared unlikely.  I realized that even though I wanted to move forward with speed and agility , the other players were content to continue to talk, talk, talk.   They were working in concepts and theories and I wanted to take action.  I also realized the science and the horticulture were not my area of expertise or my passion.  I caught on to the fact that farming is not easy... in fact its hard as sh*t.    I became aware of the latent racism that still exists in Detroit.  No one said it to my face but I could feel it..."what's Whitey doing coming down here to Detroit from the suburbs...taking our land...turning us back into share croppers".   The crime & security issues are still extremely important in Detroit.  The history of graft, deceit and fraudulent activities that have plagued Detroit's government for generations still exists...although Mayor Bing is trying to change that.   But looking at the lineage from Kwame Kilpatrick, Coleman Young etc...it's not an easy fix.

My desire to effect change, to create something from nothing and to contribute to the greater good still burns inside.  The barriers to entry in Detroit are very low.  Real Estate is cheap...so cheap,  that one can afford to experiment.  I think Urban Farming in Detroit is a great concept.  I hope someone takes the ball and runs with it.  Unfortunately it's not going to be me.  I commend Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans for their efforts Downtown.  I respect Dave Bing and I'd love to see him succeed in bringing Detroit back.  With 2/3 of the population gone...Detroit has a long way to go.

So Andy Party will be back in Aspen this Winter.  Skiing every day and partying every night.  But one thing will be different this season.  I'll be wearing my thinking cap all Winter.  I will be synthesising every thing I learned about ecology, food production, water, and the City of Detroit.  Maybe I can come up with a way to contribute to the re-birth of a once great urban area.  But one thing is for sure...you won't see me behind a plow wearing overalls.

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Reader Comments (4)

Andy, we have been building new "green" single family homes in Detroit(near eastern market and on the far east side) for the past several years. Despite our success selling all of the homes and our development contracts with the City, they pulled the plug on both Projects. We had the support of Mayor Bing, City Council, and the City planning department. Despite all of that top level support, the City workers, who were in charge of "administering" these Projects did everything in their power to delay and hinder any progress that we made.

What you have run up against with the urban farming concept does not surprise or shock me. Mayor Bing and his administration are well intended but lack the political will to compel those working on the Projects to change the way they have always done things and follow these new paths of progress. Despite the City being one small step away from bankruptcy, you still hear the pleas of "just give us the money and we will handle our own affairs", the fact is that their handling of these affairs is what drove them to bankruptcy in the first place.

I was discussing this situation with a friend of ours, David Rothbart, and he made a very keen observation as to why Dan Gilbert is able to navigate these troubled waters so easily, when Dan approaches the City with a Project he does not ask for anything( no subsidy, tax abatement etc), in fact he offers them something, new tenants for his buildings, parking improvements and future tax revenue. When other developers go in with a Project, we need something, subsidy, tax abatement etc.

We have not given up, like you we see the potential. More importantly we actually sold houses and compiled a significant waiting list of people that wanted to buy. We have(temporarily) moved our program to the City of Hamtramck, which welcomes change. We will build and sell over 40 homes in 18 months. Next time you are in town I will take you over to Ham-Town, the place is rocking. Stay well, continue with your dreams, persistence is the key to survival in the D.

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark lewis

Andy...I respect you and your creative idea. It would be great if more thought like you...I think that since we live here in the "D" we have become desensitized to anyone seeing a better Detroit. I think most people here think "we've heard that before" when it comes to people with a vision. How bout you and me take over the old Detroit tennis and Squash Club and clean it up and hold old school tournaments there and Farmers Market on the weekends??? I loved seeing you while you were in town....xoxoxoxo Ricki

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterricki rogow

wow Mark. thats a shame about your project. i'd like to see Ham-Town next time, Ricki you would win all the tournements....that wouldn't be fare.

November 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterAspen Spin


Don't give up! We need the brussel sprouts. If you are right about global warming in Aspen, the skiing will get worse in Colorado and the growing season will get longer in Detroit... maybe next year.

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBelli

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