Friday, January 27, 2012
City of Allen considers public-private partnership for Molsen Farm
Sustainable food advocates Steve Carlson and Kenny Chandler are hoping to work with the city.
In 2005, the city of Allen purchased the 52-acre Molsen Farm property at the northwest corner of Greenville Avenue and Chaparral Road.
The city envisioned the farm, which had been owned by the Molsen family since 1956, as becoming a public park celebrating the agricultural history of the city, complete with educational features revolving around sustainable and organic farming techniques.
But in the six years since the purchase, the project has seen very little movement. Part of the property is currently being privately leased to graze cattle and grow hay, and a tree farm is being maintained. But funding for the ambitious project has yet to materialize, and the farm is still not open to the public.
All of that could change soon. For the past six months, local and sustainable food advocates Steve Carlson and Kenny Chandler have been working with the parks and recreation department to find out how expanding the project's vision could not only raise its profile, but increase investor interest and reduce overhead costs for the city.
While Carlson and Chandler have not yet been hired on as consultants, officials from the parks and recreation department hope their ideas -- which include turning parts of the farm into a research destination for academic institutions and a regional training center for sustainable food production -- will make the farm more than just a recreational amenity.
"By partnering with the private sector and the educational institutions, we have the ability to create not only a destination but a research hub for changing the thought process behind food production and educating the public on better ways to home garden to producing food that's organically grown for the long-term," said Tim Dentler, director of parks and recreation.
The pair believe they can use their contacts within various nonprofit foundations and business ventures to secure private investments for the project. Both are involved in the Slow Money Alliance, which matches investors with projects dedicated to improving local and organic food systems.
"We bring a value system that we feel like is good for society, for individuals, for health, for the community and for local economic development," Carlson said. "We're very connected to people around the country who are also advocates for that, whether they are investors or foundations or nonprofit organizations or academics. We're kind of embedded in that community and we're aware of what's going on around the world."
A master plan for the project, completed in 2010 by Halff Associates, estimated the cost of the project at that time being $9.7 million. Chandler said he and Carlson want to see that master plan changed to use new, cost-saving designs for certain buildings and include the new amenities.
"They wanted to do education [in the original master plan], but nobody's actually outlined what the education was," he said. "So what we're saying is, there are a bunch of people that would like to be a part of this and would allow us to take it to a further degree. I don't think anybody wanted education to mean looking at a bunch of tractors or a petting zoo, but what was it going to be? The master plan, in my opinion, never really showed you this is what we can do with this land and make it usable and unique."
While the cost for implementing new ideas have not been determined, some of them, such as leasing parts of the farm to universities for research purposes and selling food produced at the farm under a Molsen Farm Organics brand, could also generate income for the project.
"I think it would be overly optimistic to go out there and say that every dollar on this can be raised from the outside," Carlson said. "The city will have to spend some money on this, as well, but there's a lot of money available."
Carlson and Chandler are asking for $150,000, $250,000 or $350,000 for their services, depending on the level of work they are asked to do by the city. At a January 10 city council workshop presentation by the two potential consultants, council members said they want to see a business plan and a well-defined role for Carlson and Chandler in the process before they give the project approval.
Carlson said he and Chandler plan to find out where the interest is for the project before proceeding with a business plan or committing to any long-term timelines.
"What we see now is ourselves coordinating and collaborating with all of these potential participants in the farm, conducting meetings to get input, reaching out to different people and promoting the concept, and then getting into the nitty gritty of having an actual project plan, timelines, identifying resources and writing a business plan," Carlson said.
The pair also has an eye on the adjacent property to the east, which faces Greenville Avenue and controls access to the site north of Chaparral Road. If the property was acquired, it could not only provide access to the site but expand the land available to develop the project in the future. Possible uses include a seasonal farmer's market, rotational grazing of animals, additional buildings for educational use, and additional parking, though with the property still in private hands, any future use is purely speculative at this point.
Chandler said he has 30 years of experience in the food industry, and Carlson said he has worked in commercial banking for 25 years. Both are active in sustainable food activism and the Slow Money and Slow Food movements.
The pair became involved with the project after meeting Councilmember Ross Obermeyer at a Connemara Conservancy function. They also were involved in the economic development deal which brought Greenling, a grocery delivery company specializing in locally produced food, to Allen.
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