Gary Wozniak founded RecoveryPark Farms (RPF) in 2013 to grow specialty produce on vacant Detroit land. Gary was raised in a farming community, and during his early 20s he struggled with drug abuse and ultimately served time in prison. In 1987 he became clean and sober and graduated from Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation (SHAR) Inc., a recovery center with four locations in metro Detroit. SHAR is now partnering with RPF to help people with barriers to employment return to the workforce by working on the farm. This fall, RPF broke ground on a three-acre plot across from the old Chene-Ferry Market. The farm is expected to grow to 60 acres, including 38 acres purchased from the City of Detroit. Working with several universities and emerging tech companies, RPF will also serve as a test bed for new technologies designed to increase crop growth and yield.
What inspired you to create RecoveryPark Farms?
I wanted to demonstrate to people that you can recover from addiction and you can also recover with your life when you come out of prison and do productive things. I speak very publicly about the fact that 95 percent of people coming out of prison did something they probably regret and they will never repeat themselves. But you need to give them the opportunity to become productive again. And so it’s my opportunity to give back to the recovering community and the returning citizen community in a meaningful way.
There’s RecoveryPark and RecoveryPark Farms. What’s the difference?
RecoveryPark is a nonprofit. RecoveryPark’s mission is to create jobs for people with barriers to employment. We do that as a business incubator and a support services organization. The business incubator creates for-profit businesses, where the jobs are. RecoveryPark Farms is our first for-profit business that we’ve started. Currently it’s 100 percent owned by the nonprofit. The goal is over a three-year or five-year time horizon to get ownership into the hands of the employees but still retain maybe a 10 percent ownership on the nonprofit side so we can always maintain that business integrity of the product.
Why did you choose this specific area?
We based this area on a number of things. One is the number of people that still lived here. This footprint used to have 2,500 people living in it, today it has a little over 25. It used to have 851 structures, today there’s about 30. So we chose it because it was very sparsely populated. Also, it’s the area in the city with the most city-owned land which makes it easier to assemble whole blocks to own. The next reason we choose this area is because there are numerous active bus stops within a ten-minute walk from here, so people have really easy access to get on and off a bus to get to work and back home. There’s also freeway access for our trucks coming out of our neighborhood with produce and I-94 and I-75 right here.
You’ve been growing your produce in Waterford and Detroit’s North End, and you broke ground on three acres at the Chene location last fall. What’s the latest?
We’ve got eight high-tunnels that are getting built. Four of them are completed, four are almost completed. We brought in composting from Dairy Doo, which is a company up near Sears, Michigan. They brought down 14 gravel trains of compost for us. We’re germinating seeds in the basement. We’ve got about 600 tomato plants popping up with high-pressure sodium lighting. We’ve got the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative project we’re doing in conjunction with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It’s a stormwater management project. Detroit has a combined sanitary and stormwater sewer, and this is a way for us to keep the stormwater out of the system and for us to potentially harvest the rainwater at some point.
We have two associates on board now. They’re learning farming, and they’re doing really well. Both of them have had over 20 years in prison, multiple incarcerations. We’ve been doing ongoing testing of their skill sets and they’re like sponges, man. We’re going to have three more in place between now and April 1 and another six to eight by the end of the year, and when we’re fully built out in four more years, roughly 300.
Talk a bit about some of the technologies you’re employing and the partnerships you’ve developed.
Our high-tunnels are being built by a company called Nifty Hoops in Ann Arbor. We’re working with an organization called Light Speed USA, which is an LED lighting company in Grand Rapids developing advanced lighting technology for light augmentation. We’re working with Sustainable Water Works on the water side and on the energy side. We’re working with NexTek, which is at NextEnergy, on modeling of DC power grids. Our partnerships extend on the financial side too, with our funders. We’ve had $5.4 million in funding to date. Our latest funding is a million dollar loan that’s coming from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. We received a $400,000 program-related investment from the Fisher Foundation. We received a $100,000 investment from Del Bene Produce. And we are teed up for some additional funding.
You also received a $35,000 grant from Michigan’s Business Accelerator Fund, with support from TechTown. How have you been able to leverage that funding?
The BAF was specific for lighting, and we were able to leverage the lighting challenge money, which was additional money with NextEnergy, to do a project with Michigan State University. Then, we were able to leverage the BAF money into the Michigan Corporate Relations Network Small Company Innovation Program, which is an $80,000 package, and we were able to leverage that to be a recipient of $25,000 from the JP Morgan Chase Macomb Innovation Fund. And then we’ve been invited by a couple of the foundations to do letters of intent this year.
Everything helps, right? People don’t realize that. Some funders will say, “You don’t need our $50,000 because you just got a couple million dollars coming in.” But each little piece is earmarked for certain little pieces of the project, and if I don’t get that piece then I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul to do something different. So, we don’t just go after money because it’s there. We’re pretty strategic about the money we go after. Not all money is money that you need.
That’s a really important point.
Having a financial plan and sticking to it is just as important as having a business development plan and sticking to it. In the entrepreneurial stage, the business development plan is pretty hectic. Now that we’re actually building something, it’s narrowing its focus and it’s really driven by projects and contracts and get to the end to create the jobs and grow the produce. Money should follow the same path. When you’re at the entrepreneurial stage, you take money where you can get it because you’re cobbling together five grand here, ten grand there. But when you start to get some maturity to your fundraising, and people are doing half million and million dollar loans to you, you have to be very specific about what you want from the organizations that are going to loan you money. If something is making you have to think about, “Is this really money I should be taking because of A, B and C” then you probably you shouldn’t take it.
RecoveryPark Farms is TechTown’s latest recipient of a Business Accelerator Fund grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (administered by the Michigan Small Business Development Center). As a state-designated SmartZone, TechTown supports all Detroit/Wayne County businesses applying for BAF funds, which are used for consulting services, such as intellectual property assistance, technology and product testing, engineering for manufacture and sector-specific marketing support. Grants are awarded after thorough vetting of a business’ application by a team of SmartZone representatives from across the state. Since the program’s inception in 2012, TechTown has helped 25 BAF clients secure nearly $500,000 and create more than 40 jobs. Those firms have gone on to raise over $18 million.