At a ribbon-cutting ceremony last fall held in celebration of a hydroponic greenhouse six years in the making, Winston-Salem city officials touted the project as an innovative solution to food insecurity. But some critical details weren’t mentioned: the project was massively delayed and went way over budget. And, a significant portion of the money was paid to a contractor that the city says ultimately didn’t finish the job. Now, city officials are betting on a new manager to turn the project around. But some community members are still questioning whether it was all worth it.
On a brisk October morning, the sun beats down on a translucent plastic shed mounted on a concrete slab in the middle of a field. Music is blaring, and the building is festooned with a massive white banner shouting its name: Kimberley Park Hydroponic Farm. And today, grand opening day, it’s surrounded by city officials waiting to take a victory lap. Mayor Pro Tem D.D. Adams leads the charge:
“Whether it was a George Washington Carver whether it was a Booker T. Washington, whether it was somebody that invented the automobile, somebody figured out how to build a tent, a camera, a cell phone," says Adams. "I'd like to think that I am just a trailblazer, trying to make something happen that wasn't happening in our community.”
This project was her idea. And she was a trailblazer in a way — the city had never built a hydroponic greenhouse before. But there’s more to it than that.
For years, the greenhouse sat vacant with mud and overgrown weeds caked along its sides. The contractor that was supposed to oversee it was slowly replaced. Major benchmarks set for success weren’t met. And the city was forced to repeatedly pour money into the project to see it through.
So what went wrong?
A ballooning budget
It starts with the numbers.
Back in 2016, the city budgeted $962,000 for the project. In the end, the final number turned out to be about $3.2 million. It ballooned in part because of a choice made early on: where to locate the greenhouse. The city spent over a million dollars remediating the soil, grading the land, and making other improvements to the three-acre site.
That brings us to the next hitch in the project: the management. The city picked Goler Community Development Corporation for the job without a bid process. The organization didn’t have experience in agriculture. But in August 2016, Michael Suggs, Goler’s president, said they were prepared for the work.
“We've already started talking to restaurants about buying some of our microgreens and tomatoes," said Suggs. "We've also talked to possibly Wake Forest and some of the universities about being able to buy some of the produce also. So we're looking at this from a comprehensive standpoint, as far as how we can do good and do well at the same time.”
Feeling the heat
Cracks started to appear early on.
The aquaponics aspect of the project was quickly dropped. Construction costs started to eat into the money set aside to operate the greenhouse once it was finished. And deadlines flew by.
Suggs started feeling the heat. In an interview in 2021, he said it was clear he had to let go of their subcontractor.
“I'm getting pressure from everyone, including you and the city both, like get this thing done, you know, so our patience ran out with them," said Suggs. "Unfortunately, I probably should have did it earlier.”
By 2022, the greenhouse was supposed to be in its fourth year of operation, producing crops that would then be sold to restaurants for profit or donated to those in need.
Instead, in January of that year, Suggs was emailing the manufacturer of their growing system, asking for instructional YouTube videos ahead of planting their first crop. The question came years after the city paid Goler $32,000 for a hydroponics consultant and another $50,000 to hire a master grower.
Suggs says these kinds of videos were an expected part of the training process.
Goler did eventually grow and donate a crop of lettuce. No profit was generated. It was the first and last vegetable Goler ever hydroponically grew in that greenhouse.
The city had started taking more control over the project months earlier (talk of this began in 2020), working with the new construction subcontractor hired by Goler and spending tens of thousands of dollars repairing previous work.
By September of 2022, the city was managing the growing operation entirely. Moriah Gendy, with Winston-Salem’s Office of Sustainability, says she came aboard to help get the project into its next phase.
“I didn't have any decisions about where the project started. But it was also not at the point where it was really operational,” she said. “So I still think I had an input in terms of helping to figure out how to get the system up and running and making decisions about what we will be trying to grow and how we are going to be managing these systems.”
Gendy, alongside apprentices from the city’s Positive Path program, successfully grew a variety of leafy greens including Swiss chard, kale, and lettuce.
All of the crops grown were donated to charity, as promised. The apprentices got job training, also as promised. But Goler was supposed to handle all this, not the city, at least according to the contract. And yet, Goler’s compensation was not altered to reflect their diminished responsibilities.
In total, the city says Goler CDC was paid a $477,000 administrative fee, which included some construction costs. Originally, a significant chunk of that was supposed to be set aside for Goler to manage the first two years of operations.
In a statement to WFDD, Goler President Michael Suggs says the organization only took home $152,500 throughout their years-long work on the project. He says the rest was used to cover “operational expenses and a market study/business plan.”
In June of 2022, the city of Winston-Salem opened a request for proposals, or RFP, to find someone else to run the greenhouse once it was completed. It included tasks like developing a distribution plan, marketing strategies, and hosting special events — all items that were in Goler’s original contract.
Assistant City Manager Johnnie Taylor suggested the move didn’t necessarily signal a rift with Goler.
“Why not look at all options?” said Taylor. “It gives us more options to look at.”
The city’s first search for a replacement was fruitless. But then, Help Our People Eat or H.O.P.E of Winston-Salem submitted a bid, and things finally started falling into place.
The nonprofit, located just steps from the greenhouse in Kimberley Park, has spent years experimenting with innovative solutions to food insecurity. They distribute free meals to families, offer cooking classes to children and their parents, and host educational workshops — all with the goal of expanding access to fresh, healthy food.
So when the group learned that the city was looking for someone to manage the hydroponic greenhouse, they jumped at the chance. H.O.P.E Executive Director Scott Best says it seemed like a natural fit.
“I just see the potential of it," said Best. "I know it's not been probably the best project in the history of municipal government. But I mean, it's, we see the potential of it, and you can grow a lot of food and you can, you can provide a lot of health to a lot of people.”
Was it worth it?
Some still question whether the millions spent on the project were worth it.
To put it in perspective, in this year’s proposed budget that same amount is earmarked for city parking garage elevator replacements, pay raises for firefighters, and a mental health crisis response team.
“I'm fairly sure even the most mediocre of us could probably find some more practical, democratic and transparent ways to use that money, actually toward food access," said Marcus Hill, a food security advocate with the nonprofit Island CultureZ.
In an interview before H.O.P.E was selected as the project’s new manager, Hill said he fundamentally disagreed with the city’s approach to eliminating food deserts. He says the solution isn’t creating more food and giving it away, it’s addressing the structural inequities that make it difficult for people to access food in the first place.
“If someone shows up and gives you a sandwich or gives you a bag of groceries, that's not food access. You need to be able to have the means to get your own food. We all need to have the means to get our own food.”
Despite the criticism, for the most part, city officials have stood behind the project. City Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh has said he’s received more negative feedback for his support of the greenhouse than any other vote he’s taken during his many years on the council. But in an interview last fall, he said the city was faced with a hard choice as costs mounted.
“Do you walk away from it? I mean, what's the option, besides continuing to fund it to get partial success or total failure? So, if we can generate some income out of it, we can teach some folks some new skills, I’m OK with partial success," he said.
He said he’s not sure whether he’d vote the same way again.
Mayor Pro Tem D.D. Adams is less hesitant. At the meeting where council approved H.O.P.E’s bid for the project, Adams asked them to keep an eye on growth.
“How do we expand the farm? I know that we have land all around it. But we need to also be looking at whether there are other places in the city that we can again, allow urban farmers an opportunity to participate in urban agriculture.”
H.O.P.E got the keys to the greenhouse in June, and hired a growing staff after their contract with the city was finalized. They officially began work on Monday — with plans to make good on a seven-year-old promise.