Detroit Needs Investment. John Hantz Wants to Invest. What's the Problem?
Don’t try to comprehend why Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit City Council have thrown so many obstacles and delays in front of Hantz Farms, which wants to invest in agriculture as a new urban industry.
The city’s opposition, delay and obstinacy defy explanation. Detroit has been starved of cash and is choking on debt. The unemployment rate is north of 17 percent. Tragically, the mayor and council members don’t recognize a revenue and employment opportunity staring them in the face.
Oh, they articulate excuses about possible conflicts with state law, objections from neighbors and so forth. None of it holds much water. The hang-up more likely relates to the peculiar Detroit-based psychology of us-versus-them and to weird apprehensions about ventures that are meant to make money.
Hantz Farms in November finally – finally! – gained city permission to plant 900 oak saplings on three acres on the east side. The oak grove, which could be harvested years hence, is merely symbolic, a foot in the door for commercial urban farming. If the tree project doesn’t create problems, Hantz may be permitted to grow fruit trees or crops.
Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz dreams of much more ambitious farming projects than a grove of oak trees. If permitted, Hantz Farms would buy a few thousand acres of city land, clean them up, start paying taxes and employ workers, who also will pay city taxes. More importantly, he could attract other agriculture ventures and serve as a model for other entrepreneurs.
Hantz himself is a city resident and a city taxpayer, eager to rebuild a community devastated by blight and population exodus. He’s not interested in making more money for its own sake – he does recognize that profit-making ventures are one key to a stable, safe, clean community.
Urban farming’s potential was further elevated earlier this month when Michigan State University’s Greening Michigan Institute proposed a research center for urban farming in Detroit. Rick Foster, director of the institute, said the institute would start small, perhaps no more than 10 acres, but could grow.
Naturally, the city has to approve MSU’s idea, and that’s no sure thing. Already community activists are voicing worries about how a research center might adversely affect their non-profit community gardens.
The backdrop of Detroit’s insolvency might just be the catalyst Hantz needs. A consent decree between Detroit and the state earlier this month might be an opening through which some fresh thinking could find its way to city hall. The financial advisory board primarily will oversee a city budget, making sure that it balances. The advisors also will recommend which city assets and operations might better be sold than operated at a loss.
As the work of the advisory board unfolds, let’s hope its purview expand to include potential new revenue sources, such as businesses that want to locate or expand in Detroit.