In September of 2016, the city of Winston-Salem took a big leap. It decided to invest in hydroponic farming — the practice of growing plants in liquid rather than soil. It was billed as an innovative answer to the food insecurity problem that's plagued the city's North Ward for years. The plan was to partner with a developer to build a hydroponic greenhouse that would provide food and jobs to the community. But years later, it's still unclear if the investment will pay off.
In a corner of Kimberley Park in the city's North Ward, a building with clear walls sits on a new concrete pad. Councilmember D.D. Adams explains that the greenhouse's translucent panels filter the sunlight streaming in.
“The natural light — that's important to hydroponics, the greenhouses,” says Adams. “You've got to have natural light.”
Adams came up with the idea for this hydroponic greenhouse after touring a similar facility in Charleston, South Carolina. She thought it could be replicated in Winston-Salem. The food could feed people in need in her community. The project could even be used as an educational tool and job training facility.
“It's going to help them to understand how your food works, how your water works, how all of it works together,” says Adams.
Finding someone to partner with was tricky — city officials say very few people have experience with this kind of gardening. Only one company emerged: Goler Community Development Corporation. There was no bid process — state law doesn't require one for these types of contracts. The city had worked with the firm before. And Goler's CEO Michael Suggs was interested.
So, they worked on a plan and by September 2016, they were asking the council for $962,000 to pull it off. About half the money was set aside for construction, the other for the first two years of operations. Council approved it.
“This is about us trying to do something that really affects the quality of life of people that live in the community and the neighborhood,” Adams said to the council during their meeting. “And everyone in the North Ward and others are excited about it.”
By January 2020, things had taken a turn. At a meeting, Assistant City Manager Evan Raleigh told the city council Goler had run into some pricey construction issues.
“The soil testing and remediation, all told, was approximately $100,000,” he said. “I mean, that's just one of several unanticipated items that came up during the course of construction.”
Raleigh explained Goler had already spent almost all the money allocated for the project — even the funds set aside for running the greenhouse once it had been built. He says the project, which is way behind schedule, needed an extra $500 thousand to be completed.
So, what was supposed to have happened by now, at least according to the contract?
For one — the greenhouse was supposed to be done two years ago. It's not.
A full-time staff was supposed to have been on board in January of 2018. That hasn't happened either, even though the city has already paid for the salary for an operations manager that hasn't been hired.
Details about the proposed job training program are also thin. And when questioned, city officials couldn't fill in the blanks.
“So I know that they have put together a plan and we have discussed, obviously, a job training arrangement, but the details of which need to be better served talking to them about,” Raleigh said. “I don't have the full breadth of what it is they intend to do other than that there is going to be a job training component.”
City officials also couldn't say where exactly the hydroponic crops will be sold or what portion will be given away. Goler CEO Michael Suggs has denied multiple interview requests, but at a city finance committee meeting, he said though they are in discussion with some grocery stores, nothing is set in stone.
“We do not have commitments. We're having conversations,” Suggs told councilmembers. “That's why we need that year, first year basically to get those in places, so to speak. So we have to perfect the growing part of it first before we can go out and have a contract to deliver X-amount to some grocery store.”
Down The Path
City Manager Lee Garrity says the city's main responsibility is to make sure taxpayer money is spent wisely — not necessarily to comb through every aspect of a contract.
But he acknowledges he did have some concerns.
“It has raised lots of red flags because of the timing and the delays. Absolutely," says Garrity. "And the fact that it cost more money, a lot of which was related to site grading. But, you know, once council decides to do it, we want to try to make sure that we see it through to its fruition, even despite the obstacles.”
Garrity says the city gives a little more leeway to Community Development Corporations because they are non-profits, and are often doing projects private companies won't.
“Unlike a private company where you might sever that contract and bring in another contractor who has the same expertise, once you're down the path with this kind of community partnership, it's harder to pull the plug,” says Garrity.
The city council has made it clear that they still believe in the project. They voted to approve their additional funding request, a move that encouraged D.D. Adams. She does acknowledge that some people remain skeptical about the project.
“At the end of the day, success would be that they're here and they see the process working," says Adams. "And they say, wow. Let's go ahead and fund this initiative for every community on a smaller scale.”
The greenhouse facility is now projected to open in May.