Innovative Urban Food Park Would Span Food Experience

The idea for a one-of-a-kind urban farm experience bloomed nearly two years ago as St. Petersburg Restaurateur Emmanuel Roux contemplated his next venture as a foodie and business entrepreneur.

Now plans for the Urban Food Park are on the drawing board along with estimates on its cost, and Roux and co-founder Carol Smith are moving close to a groundbreaking. A target kick-off is spring 2014, depending on site selection and funding.

Roller coasters, cartoon characters and Hollywood-style main streets aren't in the mix. The park will take a food-centered theme -- "from farm to fork to community" -- into a new unexplored world that could become a national model for the locally grown food movement and an economic engine for redevelopment.

An estimated 10 to 25 acres would be needed for a commercial urban vegetable farm, a food museum, hydroponic and aquaponic farms, butterfly and vegetable gardens, a "pop-up" restaurant with changing menus and chefs, food cooperatives, a business incubator, a retail store, a small farm animal area, a birds, bees and bugs pavilion, a large pond stocked with duck and geese, a bakery with a flour mill and a butcher's block where apprentices can learn the artisan skills of cutting meat.

The goal is to deliver locally grown food to residents of St. Petersburg and the greater Tampa Bay region while also becoming a tourist magnet, a job provider, a business incubator and a nonprofit example for how to respect and preserve natural resources.

Several locations are being considered in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Midtown in St. Petersburg , which has some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, is the most likely location; a site in Tampa also is a possibility.

"There is nothing in the world I have seen like this," says Roux, who runs an online mail-order chocolate cake business called Gateau O Chocolat. Gourmet desserts are made from organic, gluten-free, flourless recipes. Roux imports chocolate from Ecuadorian farmers who follow eco-friendly growing policies certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

Roux owned and operated The Garden Restaurant on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue for about 15 years and later the upscale restaurant, Redwoods. He stepped away from the restaurant business in 2009. He describes himself as the "concept" leader for the project; Smith, he says, is "more on the nuts and bolts."

Smith has more than 30 years experience in marketing and project development and is a sustainable community specialist and chief operating officer of Emergent Strategic Consulting.

A Community Reacts

Members of the Sustainable Urban Agricultural Coalition got a preview of the ambitious project at its monthly meeting in St. Petersburg on Monday.

First impressions were favorable, especially regarding education programs for children.

"There are a lot of people who need education about good food," says Bill Bilodeau, co-manager of Faith House Community Garden. Roux is the garden's director.

St. Petersburg resident Sophia Battle says her 16-year-old son doesn't always know where food comes from. "I think it would be fantastic, especially for a learning program for kids," Battle says. "We don't have anything close to that."

St. Petersburg resident Suely Bowser-Bradford agrees.

"I'm very interested in getting children involved," she says. A museum would be a good tool to demonstrate how food reaches marketplaces, "say popcorn. Because nowadays they have microwaved popcorn."

The food park also would be a place where seniors can get out and meet other people, Bowser-Bradford says.

Pulling It All Together Is Key

Elements of the proposed food park aren't new, Roux said. But usually they are done as single enterprises such as a community garden, a food cooperative or an urban farm.

The Urban Food Park brings all these elements together in one site and one enterprise, Roux says.

A business plan lays out details of the project which has indoor and outdoor areas and exhibits including:
    •    an edible botanical garden with a food forest and orchards;
    •    a Birds, Bees and Bugs pavilion where visitors observe these creatures in their natural habitats;
    •    a 30-seat pavilion for lectures, classes and outdoor events;
    •    a butcher's block and bakery with a flour mill;
    •    a retail store and cafe co-operative;
    •    event and catering facilities; and
    •    facilities for nonprofit organizations to use as their home bases and for community outreach.

The park has potential as a local and tourist attraction where visitors can spend a couple hours observing up-close the entire loop of farming and food production, attend cooking and nutrition classes, dine on locally grown food, enjoy strolls along shaded walkways or quiet moments in a meditation garden.

"The idea is giving people more knowledge (in that time) than they have had about healthy eating in the entire rest of their lives," Roux says.

The back-to-food-basics movement, as defined by Michael Pollan's bestselling book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma,'' has broadened into a nationwide movement that encourages locally grown food and distribution.

"I've been interested in community gardens and urban agriculture since 2009," Roux says. "When I started, people were looking at me like they did not understand. Now over 50 community gardens are in Pinellas. It is school gardens, people growing vegetables in their back yard or people who want to. There is a tremendous interest."

Discussions about the food park are on-going with staff members in St. Petersburg's Planning and Economic Development Department, leadership at the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, community activists and urban farm experts.

"The support from everyone looking at the plan has been encouraging," says Smith. "Everyone has been opening doors."

A ball park estimate for the project's budget is about $8 million. The Midtown area in South St. Pete includes city-owned lots, a brownfield program and an enterprise zone that make it attractive as a site for the park. Funding for the project would rely on public and private partnerships, grants, co-op memberships and fees, sales revenues, rentals and ticket sales for guided tours of the park.

If located in the Midtown area, the food park also could work in partnership with existing businesses including a bakery, meat packaging and seafood operations. "We do want the community on board from the get-go," Smith says. "It's a good business model for creating jobs."

Potential Funding Sources

St. Petersburg City Council members have been exploring creation of a Southside St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area that would be supported through local property taxes collected within two tax increment financing districts. Revenues must be re-invested generally on infrastructure projects within those districts.

A CRA is defined in state law and would need a city and county agreement to be established. The proposed area was identified in a 2012 study as one of five of the county's most impoverished and blighted neighborhoods. It would be about 4,700 acres and has about 34,000 residents.

But food park advocates suggest City Council also consider a different vehicle -- a community development district -- that they say would offer more local control and expand potential resources for funding. The project also envisions creation of an "eco district" to encourage waste-to-energy projects and self-sustaining energy policies.

The organic vegetable farm within the park would be 6 to 8 acres. Rick Martinez, founder and executive director of Sweetwater Organic Farm in Tampa's Town 'N Country neighborhood, would oversee its development and operation.

"St. Petersburg really has been supportive of Sweetwater and the local farm movement," says Martinez. "I think this is the fulfillment of the needs they've had."

Landscape architect Tom Levin, owner of Ekistics Design Studio, is working on the project; Meredith Sayles Hughes and Tom Hughes are consultants on the food museum. The Hughes are founders of The Potato Museum and The Food Museum, online sites that look at the history of food. They also have staged two major food exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

An architect for the main building has not been selected. But Roux envisions the structure as a architectural centerpiece for the park, modeled on the MuCEM, or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, in Marseilles. "The whole building is shrouded by a lace made out of concrete that creates a light effect," he said. "I always loved that building."

In place of the black concrete lacework of the MuCEM, the park's building would be wrapped in stacked vertical vegetable beds through which natural light can filter.

Cultivating A New Lifestyle

Job creation and economic development that addresses poverty, unemployment, job training and education are major focuses of the project. Internships and apprenticeships would be offered.

The "pop-up" restaurant has potential for incubating new food-related businesses while also providing on-going jobs.

"The hope is that young promising chefs would come in and make a proposal of what they want to do," Roux said. It would be similar to a graduate program with professional and resident chefs acting as mentors, he says.

In a similar way the butcher's block would offer options for teaching artisan skills of cutting animal carcasses into meat, a skill that Roux says is disappearing.

People are re-thinkng what food means to them, not simply eating out of necessity, he says. "Now it is a source of health and a source of pleasure."

While the Food Park is a work-in-progress, Roux says, "The timing is perfect."

Kathy Steele, a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop and earning a journalism degree from Georgia College. In her spare time, she likes writing, history and movies. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer and editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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