A Minnesota businessman is planning an urban “aquaponics” farm to raise fish and grow vegetables in Wellston .
Glenn Ford, of InCity Farms, this month closed on the purchase of about 12.5 acres from the St. Louis County Port Authority for the venture, a $325,000 sale that has been in the works for over a year.
Ford said his goal is to build the urban farms in communities where unemployment is high, and the $20 million, 175,000-square-foot Wellston facility will be the first. One of his partners, Norman Harrington, grew up in St. Louis and is the son of Melvyn Harrington, a founder of one of the city’s first black-owned banks.
Ultimately, Ford hopes to employ about 130 people at the site, many of whom will be able to learn on the job with little to no experience. While some positions will require more advanced skills, Ford said unskilled workers will start at $33,000 with the opportunity for a $4,000 bonus.
“We expect that to be first-time employment for a lot of people,” he said.
Yes, the venture sounds altruistic, but Ford said it will indeed be a for-profit company.
“It’s my feeling that nonprofits can be tremendously helpful, but if you’re going to revitalize a community, you’ve got to have a strong for-profit” sector, he said.
The goal is to sell fish and produce grown in a closed system to grocery stores, restaurants and others in the food industry. With fish populations under stress around the world, and demand rising for clean, locally produced food, he expects buyers from beyond the region to source their food from the St. Louis County facility.
“We may work with wholesalers who want to move food beyond St. Louis, but St. Louis becomes a really important production point with us,” Ford said in a phone interview.
Locally, he said, chefs should be able to buy produce that “30 minutes ago, it was growing.” Ford said the facility will also have a small retail operation for local customers, a request from Wellston officials seeking to alleviate the shortage of fresh grocery options in the area.
Ford recently won accolades for his efforts from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which in May granted him a Minnesota SBA District Directors Award.
“Inner-city communities have a severe balance of trade problem,” Ford said in the announcement. “They gain little community benefit for the value of their dollars spent. I believe this must be rectified and it should start with food.”
But Ford has had difficulty financing the retail component of his venture, Praxis Foods. Plans had been in the works for several Praxis Marketplace grocery stores, though they haven’t yet been built. A deal for one in north Minneapolis, in a poorer neighborhood of the city, fell apart after Ford missed city development deadlines.
The low margins in grocery stores and his target market of underserved urban communities made securing financing difficult for the Praxis Marketplace concept, Ford said. Now, he said he is focusing on developing the aquaponics production facilities first, including another he has planned in Brooklyn Center, Minn., north of Minneapolis. Aquaponics is “pretty hot” now among investors, Ford said.
“From an investor standpoint, raising money for a grocery store is maybe five times harder than raising it for aquaponics,” he said.
For two years, he has been working to put together financing for the concept, and he said he has “more than enough” lined up to start work on the Wellston facility. Crews should start clearing the site, part of which extends into Pagedale, of overgrowth and debris by late next month. The site is already mostly vacant, so construction should begin soon after with a “rapid” timeline that Ford said will have the facility operational by the summer.
“Once you finally have invested capital, you want to get going fast,” Ford said. “And we definitely want to do that.”
Ford praised the help he said he has gotten from the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which staffs the Port Authority, and from Wellston city government in closing the deal. It has been a better experience than he had in Minneapolis.
“Let’s go and work in those communities that know they want a solution as opposed to talking ourselves into being there,” Ford said.
The Port Authority has the right to repurchase the Wellston land if Ford’s companies haven’t developed the parcels within two years. It had requested proposals for the vacant land just west of Normandy High School on North Market Street last year and awarded the contract to Ford in October 2016.
The sale to Ford is one of several Wellston properties St. Louis County economic development agencies have turned over to developers recently. This summer, the St. Louis County Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority sold two vacant industrial properties the county had spent years and millions of dollars cleaning up to a group of investors that hopes to build warehouses and distribution facilities.