Victory Garden Initiative plans to put down roots in Harambee

Feature Story

Farmer Ian Powell works in one of the farm’s hoop houses.

The inside of the former pub on the corner of East Concordia Avenue and North Richards Street in Milwaukee looks like a disorderly estate sale.

The once-tavern, then church, now makeshift storage facility is stuffed with miscellaneous furniture, antiques and racks of vintage clothing, with artwork lining nearly every inch of wall space.

But Gretchen Mead, executive director of Victory Garden Initiative, sees the potential. Clear out the clutter, spruce up the space, install an outdoor patio and transform it into a community hub and headquarters for the urban agriculture organization.

Those are among Mead’s plans for the building at 249 E. Concordia Ave. in the Harambee neighborhood on the city’s north side.

It would position VGI’s staff across the street from its urban farm – a 1.5 acre-lot located in the middle of the block at 220 E. Concordia Ave, flanked on three sides by residential properties.

Currently, VGI’s headquarters is located at 1845 N. Farwell Ave., a co-working space for a group of sustainability-related organizations called the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium.

Mead has long dreamed of the organization occupying a space in the Harambee neighborhood, which would provide not only easy access to the farm, but also a gathering space for the community.

Plans include renovating the former pub into a space that can host classes and events and installing a garage door that would open up to an outdoor gathering space. The upstairs, currently an unrented living space, would be converted into offices for the organization. VGI plans to begin occupying the building this summer.

Plans for the second phase of the headquarters project would include installing a commercial kitchen.

“We’re looking at creating more of a campus,” Mead said. “We have our 1.5-acre farm, a community garden and education site, and then the next step is to have an indoor site, where we’ll have a kitchen and where we can follow the food that we grow to the plate.”

Staff would prepare produce after it’s harvested across the street and hold community cooking classes.

“It seems like the next piece of the puzzle,” said VGI farmer Ian Powell. “Being across the street from the garden, as we harvest things, we will have a place to bring it, sort it, wash it, clean it, cook it. I’ve stumbled into the philosophy that just growing the food isn’t enough. That’s just half of the circle and the other half is turning it into food and getting it to people. So this is going to give us a chance to fill out the other half of the circle.”

VGI is now in the middle of a capital campaign, with a goal of raising about $130,000 for the purchase and initial renovations to the building.

“In terms of capital campaigns, it’s a relatively small cost with a really positive, impactful outcome,” Mead said.

The new headquarters comes at a time when the scope of VGI’s work is growing.

The recent closure of Growing Power, a nonprofit pioneer in the urban agriculture movement that dissolved late last year after operating for 20 years on Milwaukee’s north side, has left openings for organizations like VGI to fill in the gap.

VGI has already agreed to take over the operations of an 8.6-acre, Milwaukee County-owned fruit tree orchard in Oak Creek that was formerly operated by Growing Power as part of a county program aimed at combating food deserts in Milwaukee neighborhoods.

The organization is also making a bid to take on 11 100-foot hoop houses behind Maglio Cos. on North Port Washington Road in Glendale that were formerly managed by Growing Power. VGI is submitting a proposal to Riverwest Food Pantry to operate the space, which would allow it to expand its growing capacity.

The headquarters project joins a growing number of redevelopment and new construction projects in the Harambee neighborhood, particularly along North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Bader Philanthropies Inc. is currently renovating the 90-year-old building at 3318 King Drive and enlarging it to become its new headquarters. When completed, the building will replace its current office in the Historic Third Ward.

Meanwhile, a new mixed-use development project that includes 44 market-rate apartments, 1,400 square feet of retail space and a 17,000-square-foot library, which will replace the current Milwaukee Public Library branch at 310 W. Locust St., is planned to open this year.

Rick Banks, community engagement coordinator for Riverworks Development Corp., said those projects, paired with an increase in people buying homes in the neighborhood, illustrate the growing momentum in the area.

“There are a lot of positive things happening,” Banks said.

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