As Hydroponics Project Languishes, Questions Remain About City Oversight And Spending
Three years after a city-funded hydroponic greenhouse was set to be completed, its doors remain closed and not a single hydroponic plant is growing inside.
Originally conceived as a solution to food insecurity and unemployment in Winston-Salem’s North Ward, the project has been marred by construction delays and budget issues. A recent review of invoices and court documents raises questions about the city’s oversight of the project.
The program was initially approved in 2016, after Councilmember, now Mayor Pro Tempore, D.D. Adams took an interest in hydroponic farming – the practice of growing plants without soil. The plan was for the greenhouse to produce fresh fruit and vegetables for one of the city’s food deserts and also serve as a job training center. Council agreed to take the leap. It approved $962,000 in funding for the project and set a January 2018 completion deadline.
“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 December of 2019, construction still wasn’t done and money was running out. Soil remediation, unanticipated road construction, and other issues put the project behind schedule and over budget. At the finance committee meeting, Adams asked her fellow council members to keep the faith and provide the extra money needed to see it through.
“We have a serious poverty and hunger issue,” said Adams. “This is going to get some attention whether it's from the United States Department of Agriculture, HUD or others. So I ask you to be lenient on this, and please support this.”
And they did. Council approved an extra $500,000 in funding, bringing the overall total to $1.4 million. Goler Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit tasked with managing the project, charged on.
Here’s one example: In late 2018, Goler requested over $50,000 to cover the cost of a full-time operations manager, also known as a master grower. The city gave them the money. But Goler President Michael Suggs says the person they hired for this role is only working, and paid for, about five hours a week, due to construction delays.
“We're looking at these schedules that our contractor has given us. And based on the schedules that he's given us, he should have been full-time,” he said. “And so we were planning for that.”
In another instance from 2018, Goler requested $10,000 to cover the cost of materials, seeds, and supplies. And city officials again dispersed the money, without requiring itemized receipts.
In fact, receipts weren’t included in invoices for over $130,000 in administrative expenses. The city didn’t require that.
And when asked, city officials didn’t provide any additional documentation of how exactly that money was spent. They directed WFDD to Michael Suggs. He says that funding was used to pay for staff time on the project, and to keep Goler’s doors open.
“When we had that agreement with the city, they set aside a certain amount of money. That was for our administrative – basically, for us to do the work,” said Suggs. “And so that budget was set. And that's the amount that they had agreed to, and that we had agreed to so we were basically just pulling from what an agreement that had already been determined.”
The original city contract did not require Goler to provide receipts in order to draw down the administrative budget. It did say the city could request documentation to support expenditures, but the city did not provide WFDD with evidence it requested anything beyond the invoices.
“We've got dozens of nonprofits we partner with, and we don't review ... I mean, we don't review every invoice that they spend money on,” said Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity. “We look at the outcomes and the objectives that they achieve.”
The city’s process for vetting partners for these kinds of projects is another question mark. Suggs says Goler CDC was approached to do the project by D.D. Adams due to its successful record. The corporation has been involved in the development of several affordable housing complexes, including Goler Manor and 757 North Apartments. It also started a workforce training program for people interested in jobs in IT.
But City Manager Lee Garrity said there was no formal bid process for this project.
“We have a very, very formal process for vetting and doing our request for proposals for contracts with consultants, when we build anything, things like that. This was a partnership with a community development corporation that we had a lot of experience with, a lot of successful housing projects have already been done by Goler,” said Garrity. “Goler was brought to the table as a willing partner to take this on back in 2016.”
A search of court records reveals that years prior to the start of the project, Suggs, separate from his capacity as president of Goler CDC, ran into legal issues related to debt. He was involved in several foreclosure proceedings that were eventually settled and had a federal tax lien filed against him. It was satisfied this March.
Court records also show he and a business partner failed to repay a 2006 loan for $150,000 made by the City of Winston-Salem for a development project on Martin Luther King Drive.
Suggs says his personal financial issues are irrelevant to his work on the hydroponics project. He specifically addressed the foreclosure of one of his properties.
“That is not a Goler issue. That is a Michael Suggs ... and it was not a suing, it was a foreclosure is what it was,” said Suggs. “When the real estate markets went bad, I had some property. Okay, that has been satisfied with BB&T. So for you to bring that up now, on a personal level, first of all, I'm insulted. But once again, it has nothing to do with the organization.”
City Manager Lee Garrity says he doesn’t know if the city was aware of Suggs’ personal financial history prior to the start of the project. “We look into the financial records of the entity," he says, not the individual.
The original city contract did require Goler to submit tax forms, procurement policies and accounting procedures prior to the disbursement of funds.
Suggs and Garrity both say they are committed to seeing the project through. Suggs recently opted to replace a construction contractor after he says they repeatedly missed deadlines. He’s optimistic about the future of the project.
“We admit it should have been done a long time ago. But there were reasons that it is taking us to get there. And we will get there. But unfortunately, it's taken a lot longer than any of us had anticipated.”
Suggs now estimates the project will be done by the end of the year.