Dec. 14 2011 12:00 AM

East side warehouse will become Food Resource Center


It’s sad to stand on bare asphalt where giant rutabagas once roamed, but this could be the last winter Lansing’s east side will fend for fresh food without the Allen Street Farmers Market, on seasonal hiatus since Nov. 9. By this time next year, if an ambitious new warehouse renovation project goes as planned, the popular market will become a year-round affair and the east side’s local food revolution will get another boost.

On Oct. 25, the Allen Neighborhood Center signed a 10-year lease for a 5,600-square-foot warehouse behind its office on Kalamazoo Street between Shepherd and Allen streets. The idle warehouse will become an energy-efficient, multi-purpose Food Resource Center, with a community kitchen, rentable food storage bins and a winter home for the farmers market.

Monday afternoon, the project’s principals (project leader Hollie Hamel, architect Mary Swanson, construction manager Carleen Davis and LEED consultant George Berghorn) huddled for the first time over the blueprints. The meeting ran late, but when it was over, Hamel lingered in the chilly warehouse and envisioned a bustling community hub.

“Isn’t this a great space?” her voice echoed. “Believe me, it’s going get awful small pretty quick.”

The warehouse has an address — 1629 Kalamazoo St. — but it isn’t visible from Kalamazoo. It bulges into the parking lot behind the complex of offices that houses the Allen Neighborhood Center and several businesses.

The complex is a gangly accretion of 18 add-ons, beginning with a grocery store owned by longtime Lansing City Councilman Fred L. Kircher. When the warehouse’s drop ceilings and half-walls are torn out, the supermarket’s graceful barrel vault, hidden from the outside by steel siding, will again swoop over the interior.

“I love it that the building started out with food and it’s going back to food,” Hamel said.

Planners hope to have the warehouse ready for the farmers market by fall 2012, and finish the kitchen by the end of that year.

Joan Nelson, director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, estimated the project would cost “several hundred thousand dollars.” So far, the team has raised $100,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a $75,000 signature grant from Capital Area Community Foundation, and $45,000 from miscellaneous grants.

This year, 16,500 visitors came to the Allen Street Market, peaking in late summer at 1,000 visitors in one day.

“That farmers market has been a de facto grocery store for a lot of people in this neighborhood for eight years,” Nelson said. To fill the tables in wintertime, a growing number of hoop houses, including the nearby Hunter Park Greenhouse, have extended the growing season through the year, even in Michigan.

But Nelson, Hamel and the rest of the team have much higher hopes for the space than hosting a once-a-week event.

“It could be rented for showers, receptions, parties, especially with a commercial kitchen,” Nelson said. “We could have neighborhood summits, dinners, fundraising events.”

Six segmented food storage lockers will go against the west wall. Nelson expects a variety of users, from backyard gardeners to farmers and commercial purchasers, to rent them.  

Ugly office cubicles on the warehouse’s east side, last used by Big Daddy Taxi several years ago, will be torn out to build the community kitchen.

“We’ll pop out original window sites and let in natural light,” Hamel said.

The kitchen will look onto the central space, making it easier to hold cooking classes, throw parties and generally mingle over food.

“This will be an open, gregarious spot,” Hamel said. “People will define it for themselves.”

Nelson said the kitchen will be rented to food entrepreneurs on weekends and evenings “to create value-added products.”

Nelson and Hamel already have one such product in mind. Nelson wouldn’t say what it will be, except that it will be a “signature” food from Lansing’s east side, it will be aggressively marketed “as widely as possible,” and it won’t be a doughnut. 

There’s a grand design behind all of this fooling around in the kitchen. Between rental of kitchen space and food bins, income from the farmers market and proceeds from the mystery “signature product,” Nelson hopes the Food Resource Center will make enough money to become self-sustaining in three years.

Nelson and her colleagues have spent the last 10 years weaving a web of programs meant to bring affordable local food to isolated residents of Lansing’s east side, from the Breadbasket program to the farmers market to gardening classes and children’s programs. As belts tighten in the nonprofit world, Nelson wants the Allen Neighborhood Center to move toward social entrepreneurship, where non-profits make money to support their operations.

Since 2008, Nelson said, there’s been a 40 percent drop in nonprofit funding. “Most nonprofits took a hit in recent years,” Nelson said. “We’re having to be literally more enterprising in finding ways to meet our mission.”