Traditionally, New Venture Advisors’ projects have been catalyzed by an individual or group passionate about strengthening their local food system. These community leaders often believe that market-based solutions might be the answer, and look to food hubs or food-related enterprises to spur development.

From that hypothesis, we work with local teams to conduct market assessments or feasibility studies. These studies examine regional agricultural production and demand for local food. They also look at gaps in services across the supply chain and existing local food systems initiatives. From this research, we help teams determine the right local food enterprise for their region and to assess its financial viability.

Recently, we have begun conducting a different type of study entirely. Led by nonprofits, planning groups, economic development agencies and other organizations, these studies are initiated out of an interest in the preservation and/or utilization of abandoned spaces that previously served as vital community resources. These groups come to us with a question: Given the interest in and momentum of the local food movement, can local food related enterprises help support the revitalization of buildings and spaces that currently sit empty in their cities and towns?

We see tremendous potential in this revitalization strategy.

Problems and issues created by vacant buildings:

  • The abandoned, vacant buildings ripe for revitalization can include schools, large office complexes or factories, hospitals, and churches. The buildings were typically civic cornerstones, connecting citizens to important resources, and often acted as a driving force for community and regional economic development.
  • With these building sitting empty, neighborhoods can begin to lose their unique sense of place and their cultural identity, not to mention valuable jobs and tax revenues. And they can erode the value of nearby homes and pose health and safety risks.
  • Some buildings have historically significant architecture that, if preserved, can maintain an important focal point of a community’s identity.

Solutions created by local food enterprises:

  • Local food efforts are often focused on strengthening communities, improving health and wellness, and spurring economic development. The mission of the good food movement is therefore often in direct alignment with the vision that planners and municipal governments have for the role these vacant buildings can and should play in communities.
  • Vacant buildings often have important assets that are highly relevant for local food businesses, including commercial kitchens, sometimes with full ventilation and plumbing. They may have large rooftops or lawns suitable for agricultural production, or large multi-purpose spaces with high ceilings and plenty of light. These assets might make these buildings natural fits for the needs of local food businesses.
  • For most food business, one of the keys to success is controlling cost. A big cost is investment in facilities, infrastructure and ongoing “occupancy costs.” Depending on the condition of the building, repurposing existing buildings can help minimize construction and overhead costs.

We’ll highlight a few projects that demonstrate the unique opportunities for local food businesses and community planning organizations to leverage existing, abandoned building in ways that help strengthen the local community.

Landmarks Illinois & Closed Chicago Public Schools

In 2013, the Chicago Board of Education closed 49 schools to combat a budget deficit and more efficiently distribute its student population and resources. As the state’s leading voice for historic preservation, Landmarks Illinois worked with NVA and Chicago Public Schools to identify reuse opportunities for 18 schools of historic and architectural significance. Recognizing Chicago as a well-established and growing hub of entrepreneurial activity in food and beverage, NVA explored adaptive reuse centered on important assets of these schools – their kitchens, grounds, and multi-use spaces – that could serve as a foundation for food enterprises. We conducted site visits to understand potential use cases and interviewed food entrepreneurs across the city. Several high potential opportunities emerged. A local microbrewery is interested in moving to one of the city’s largest and most beautiful closed schools, an urban agriculture company is interested in transitioning its operations into a west side school, and local culinary incubators see the potential for setting up headquarters in one or more schools. (See the results of the Landmarks Illinois study here.)

Guilford Mills Complex

A former textile mill in Cobleskill, NY, this 468,000 square-foot factory “shell” about a mile from SUNY Cobleskill has been in search of an owner and potential tenants for five years. Recently, it has been announced that businesses housed within this complex may more easily qualify for START-UP NY incentives including certain state and local tax waivers for up to ten years. NVA, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Empire State Development are assessing potential food and agriculture businesses for the complex to spur economic development and boost the region’s food system.

Enterprises may include existing businesses such as dairy manufacturers, cider companies or maple syrup producers looking to expand production or agricultural storage. New operators may be sought for aggregation and processing including a potential shared use kitchen, services that are much needed by both producers and buyers. We are finding strong interest in meat processing, grain aggregation and storage, and small-batch co-packing. Contact us if you’re interested!

Blue Ridge Produce

A team of entrepreneurs had an interest in preserving the agricultural landscape of Culpeper County in northern Virginia, and believed it could be done by giving farmers an economic reason to stay in farming. In late summer 2010, we completed a food system study that identified a multi-million dollar opportunity to deliver Virginia-grown produce to Washington, DC customers. The project took a significant step forward when the team identified a former tropical plant facility, vacant for a number of years, where farm products could be produced, aggregated, manufactured and distributed. The 33-acre property has two acres of greenhouses, 70,000 square feet of warehouse and office space to house a food hub and business incubator, and 400 acres of adjacent farmland. Blue Ridge Produce was born. These types of facilities, perfect for an integrated local food enterprise center, may become increasingly available as the U.S. plant and flower-growing industry continues to decline due to competition from importers.

Lessons Learned

For those who are exploring the intersection of the local food movement and building reuse opportunities, we offer the following insights from these and other studies we have recently conducted.

1. Think broadly about the term “local food business”

There are so many emerging food hubs and local food enterprise models springing up across the country, each with unique opportunities to leverage existing spaces. Examples of businesses and enterprise models that might be appropriate for an existing space include:

  • Traditional aggregation-focused food hub that buys from local producers, packs and stores products, and distributes these goods to local buyers
  • Food enterprise center (similar to Louisville Food Port or the Baltimore Food Hub) that offers traditional food hub services alongside commercial processing, business services and technical assistance, and retail space
  • Culinary incubator, with “pods” or dedicated production space for each tenant
  • Rural and urban agriculture, including hydroponics, aquaponics and aquaculture
  • Commercial kitchen or shared-use kitchen operation
  • Mid-sized co-packer for entrepreneurs who are transitioning out of commercial kitchen production
  • Culinary education, which may focused on low income consumers and/or those with very limited access to healthy food, or consumers looking for unique experiences and entertainment
  • Restaurant or food service operations including commissary services for food trucks
  • Catering services, potentially with an adjacent event space
  • Microbrewing or micro distilling operations (commercial or retail)
2. Many tenants often need to come together

While there might be a single developer, owner and/or operator of an entire building, it is often beneficial to have a myriad of tenants run their enterprises out of a single facility. Many of the spaces that have remained vacant are very large – over 100,000 square feet is standard. This large size is often a key reason why they have not been quickly purchased – and why they make such good candidates for multi-use, multi-tenant purposes.

Buildings can be redeveloped with a focus on food, as is the vision for the Guilford Mills Complex in Cobleskill, NY. In this scenario, multiple food businesses would operate under a single roof. This allows these businesses to benefit from shared common spaces (such as parking, docking and storage) and resources, providing them also with the opportunity to collaborate and share learning.

Additionally, it is important to remember that food-related enterprises can coexist with other types of businesses within a single building. For example, a senior housing facility might have a shared-use kitchen on its first floor, a hotel might share walls with a local food restaurant, or a school might have a series of urban garden enterprises on its property.

3. Renovations may be daunting but can be mitigated

The idea of purchasing and renovating an old space can be overwhelming and appear expensive. Entrepreneurs and business owners often believe it is cheaper to simply buy a more modern, available building like a former restaurant space, or to build from scratch. However, what is often appealing about these vacant buildings is that they have infrastructure in place that is costly to build from the ground up – plumbing, HVAC, high ceilings, etc. Additionally, there might be tremendous market appeal to operating out of an old, beautiful facility and revitalizing it as a community asset, and reducing the need for new building materials which can be energy and resource-intensive to manufacture. Finally, there are often tax credits, subsidies and even grants available to support these projects. For instance, the Rehabilitation Tax Credit provides a 10% tax credit for buildings placed in service before 1935 and 20% for certified historic structures. Depending on the building and its location, there may be local incentives as well.

4. Thoughtfully match use cases with location

Think about how the location of the building informs the use case. Rural buildings may be more suited for a food hub or small scale processing facility due to proximity to farmers. Urban buildings in residential areas may be best suited for culinary incubators, contract processing or commercial microbrewing. Restaurant and food service uses may be best suited for highly population-dense, urban buildings where the surrounding community will be able to support it economically.

5. Build strong partnerships

Building redevelopments are usually not possible without strong partnerships. Our research found that successful projects had been led by a team with a strong vision for how a space could be reused to revitalize the community and support the local food movement. These teams also had strong partnerships on the ground, often with funders, aldermen, elected leaders, nonprofits and architectural associations. The most successful projects also engaged the surrounding community, inviting a process of individual participation, input, and feedback that often took the form of community meetings.

We often marvel at the impact the local food movement is having across well being, health, agriculture, poverty, national security, ecology and so many other factors. It is a thrill to realize it also has potential to generate strong economic and community benefits through building and public space reuse. We know it is early yet in this work and are eager to learn more as planning and execution efforts continue.

If you have any success stories to share, or are exploring this strategy within your own community, please reach out! [email protected]