By BRIAN LOCKHART, Connecticut Post
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) _ Antonio St. Lorenzo and Sean Richardson looked out at a tangled urban jungle.
The vacant, contaminated land at Central Avenue and Trowel Street is overgrown with weeds and grass, and features the occasional stray mattress–an unproductive, 3-acre-plus industrial brownfield in the East End.
“You can’t build. It’s nothing,” shouted a man from a passing pickup truck, who seemed to have pegged the nicely dressed businessmen as developers eyeing property.
St. Lorenzo and Richardson, however, may be on their way to proving such skeptics wrong.
The state has awarded their limited liability corporation, Heroes Village, a $1 million grant to help clean up the pollution. They want to build an 80,000-square-foot greenhouse to grow tomatoes, lettuce and peppers for distribution to stores, restaurants and, through an on-site community center, the local neighborhood.
Exit the urban jungle, enter the urban farm.
“We’ll have shovels in the ground very soon,” Richardson said.
Heroes Village is a new “socially conscious, for-profit” organization focused on helping veterans find jobs, its founders say. St. Lorenzo, a Vietnam veteran and CEO, lives in Newtown. Richardson, the chief business affairs officer, resides in Weston. Heroes Village offices are in downtown Bridgeport.
Their goal is to hire between 25 and 40 ex-service personnel to staff the greenhouse complex.
“They’re coming home, no jobs,” St. Lorenzo said. “The guys say, `A bed is great, but I really need a job.’ “
Neither St. Lorenzo nor Richardson have farming experience. They have hired a master gardener to oversee the greenhouses and are getting advice from the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“We’ve done greenhouse educational courses before … so it was a natural fit,” said Bonnie Burr, an assistant director at the agriculture college who helps oversee a community outreach program. “We can help in terms of figuring out what kind of greenhouses work best, how to set up systems with plants inside and doing … workforce training.”
Mayor Bill Finch has rolled out the welcome mat for Heroes Village’s gardens, which will be hydroponic.
“Instead of growing in dirt, you’re growing in raised beds in trays in a thin film of water you put nutrients into,” said Richardson. “Ninety percent of the water is recycled. There’s no pesticides.”
While it’s not the supermarket East End residents have long demanded, the produce will fill a niche.
“These are `food deserts’ here. There’s no fresh vegetables,” St. Lorenzo said. “I have a 6-year-old myself. I want him to eat fresh vegetables, not something sprayed with pesticides and ripening on the way here.”
The city’s economic development head, David Kooris, is also eager to promote hydroponic agricultural uses for vacant industrial sites. Last November, he supported a zoning application for a “hydroponic plant cultivation business,” a medical marijuana farm in a vacant warehouse. The proposal was rejected by the Zoning Commission.
The Heroes Village greenhouses will be located on city-owned land that once housed Chrome Engineering, Pacelli Trucking and a former illegal dump locally dubbed “Mount Trashmore.”
“It’s a project that hit every possible button you can imagine,” said Kooris. “Brownfield remediation. Urban agriculture. Sustainability. Local hiring. Veterans. It was a quintuple win.”
Kooris said the city likely will enter into a long-term lease arrangement with Heroes Village that will include tax payments since the entity is a for-profit. The $1 million state loan from the Department of Economic and Community Development was crucial to getting the development off of the ground.
“Frankly, without it this would be a tough project,” Kooris said. “That will help them a lot in bringing other investors to the table.”
St. Lorenzo and Richardson declined to disclose their investors.
Some Trowel Street residents said they welcome the project.
“I think it’s a great idea, especially the community center piece,” said Andrea Carter, who has lived in the neighborhood for over a year. “It would be even better if people could afford (the produce). How are we supposed to eat healthy when the things that are bad for you are cheap and the vegetables overpriced? You can’t afford to eat healthy.”
St. Lorenzo said the community will not only be able to afford his vegetables, but he also hopes to be able to provide free meals for the hungry at the community center as well.
Even before they have broken ground, St. Lorenzo and Richardson have big plans for expansion with similar greenhouses in Boston, Las Vegas and elsewhere.
“This is the flagship,” St. Lorenzo said. “We’re going to promote out of here.”
Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com
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