Growing Power, an urban agriculture nonprofit organization that has operated on Milwaukee’s north side for more than 20 years, has shuttered its doors amid financial issues, but a new organization plans to retain its mission and move into its headquarters on Silver Spring Drive.
[caption id="attachment_336304" align="alignright" width="389"] Growing Power's headquarters at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr.[/caption]
Plans are underway for Green Veterans, a nonprofit organization that recently launched a Wisconsin chapter, to purchase Growing Power’s facility at 5500 W. Silver Spring Dr., where it would open an urban farm school, co-op for small farmers and trauma resolution center.
Brian Sales, co-founder and chief executive officer of Green Veterans, was recruited earlier this year by Growing Power founder Will Allen to succeed him when he eventually retired as CEO. That transition was expected to take a few years, but the end of Allen’s tenure, and the organization, arrived sooner than expected, Sales said.
Growing Power’s board of directors voted in late November to dissolve the corporation amid financial concerns, according to Sales. Repeated requests for comment from board members were not returned.
IRS filings indicate the nonprofit’s debt has mounted for years. Growing Power reported a deficit of $723,186 in 2015, the most recent available IRS filing. It ran deficits of $830,738 in 2014, $2.2 million in 2013 and $2.5 million in 2012. The organization also has multiple pending legal judgments. Allen faces a $196,375 legal judgment filed in August by First Farmers Bank and Trust, according to Milwaukee County Circuit Court records.
Since launching in 1993, Growing Power has garnered national attention for its innovative approach to sustainable farming, which incorporated both cultivation and distribution of food in urban areas. Over the years, Growing Power has expanded its programs and partnerships with other organizations and added satellite locations in Madison and Chicago, which was led by Allen’s daughter Erika Allen. In 2012, the organization announced plans to create community food centers across the country with a $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Allen, a former professional basketball player and corporate marketing professional, likewise has gained many accolades for his leadership in the urban agriculture movement. He received a $500,000 “genius grant” from John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2008, joined First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move! Campaign in 2010 and was named one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People” by Time magazine that same year.
Allen could not be reached for comment for this story.
Under a new plan, the campus on Milwaukee’s north side would re-open with a mission reminiscent of Growing Power.
[caption id="attachment_336307" align="alignright" width="347"] Brian Sales, co-founder and CEO of Green Veterans, pictured with Gov. Scott Walker; William Sims, co-founder of Center for Veterans Issues; State Rep. Evan Goyke and Shea Zastrow of Green Veterans at the signing of the Wisconsin Veterans Farm Bill in Wausau on Wednesday.[/caption]
Green Veterans, which teaches veterans about sustainability and entrepreneurship, plans to purchase the Growing Power property once the foreclosure process is completed.
The campus would house three initiatives: an urban farm school, which would educate and recruit growing farmers, with a focus on veterans; a trauma resolution center to help those who experience post-traumatic stress, including veterans and residents of the community; and a small farmers’ co-op center, where local farmers could rent space to grow produce and raise livestock.
“It’s a multipurpose facility that can serve so many underserved communities who are suffering and/or are looking for opportunities to make viable work out of urban farming,” Sales said.
A combat veteran, Sales said he believes in the project’s mission.
“I learned firsthand that urban farming and sustainability as a whole gave me a purpose again after the military,” he said.
The organization needs to raise $500,000, which would cover the cost of the building and repairs, and provide operating capital, Sales said.
Green Veterans' Wisconsin chapter, which launched in March, is its fourth arm to open in four years. It also has operations in Florida, Puerto Rico and Michigan. The organization focuses on sustainability from a holistic perspective, Sales said, with initiatives including food production, waste remediation, wastewater treatment, water conservation, renewable energy and affordable housing.
Green Veterans will partner with several organizations on the new project, including Groundwork Milwaukee, Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition, Milwaukee Farmers Union, Center for Veterans Issues, Milwaukee Food Council and Outpost Natural Foods, Sales said.
“It’s a collaborative effort with grassroots organizations that have had a lot of history here or have started because of Growing Power – they are going to be part of the team to transition the mission and keep it going,” he said.
Sales stressed that the new organization will run lean on staff but he expects a few Growing Power employees will be retained.
Growing Power had 94 employees in 2015, according to an IRS filing. That was down from 144 employees in 2014.
“This new venture will be run very efficiently with very minimal overhead costs, especially employees,” Sales said.
Growing Power’s Chicago branch, meanwhile, announced on its Facebook page in late November that it plans to leave the organization to form a new venture called Urban Growers’ Collective. Requests for comment from the Chicago office were not returned.