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Health and Medicine

Food as an economic engine
Cleveland's West Side Market, and Cincinnati's Findlay Market, drive nearby development

In The Region:
Cleveland's West Side Market and Cincinnati's Findlay Market bring attention to the potential impact of food-related businesses on the economic health of a community. Once abandoned storefronts around these historic anchor institutions now sport restaurants and other food-oriented operations. From Ohio Public Radio member station WCPN, David C. Barnett takes us to another city neighborhood that's undergoing a transformation, thanks in part to food.
Food as an economic engine

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For years, this community along Kinsman Avenue on Cleveland’s east side has been known as “the Forgotten Triangle” --- city streets populated by abandoned storefronts, ramshackle houses, and open lots, filled with weeds and a history of illegal dumping.

“We’re talking, not only refrigerators and burnt-out cars, and those kinds of things, but also dead bodies.”

Randell McShepard and two childhood friends are working to paint a different picture for this neighborhood. They’ve pieced together grant money to finance an urban agriculture operation, called Rid-All Green, which features: produce, a large composting facility, and even a Tilapia fish farm. Partner Damian Forshe dips a net into a bubbling tank and pulls out a half dozen wriggling fish.

“Those sell for $7.99 a pound, so the average fish is about $10.00.”

Much has been made of the potential for urban farms to provide fresh foods and eliminate so-called “food deserts”, but there is increasing evidence that the growing, buying and selling of food can do more than that for struggling neighborhoods. It can actually be a catalyst for economic revival. A recent study from Ohio State University examines this phenomenon. Author Parwinder Grewal says urban agriculture can help keep a community financially self-reliant.

“The research we are doing is indicating that cities can substantially enhance their local economy with this by keeping the money within the community. Right now, so much money is leaking out of the communities, because we have to buy food from outside.”

According to OSU estimates, between $29 and $150 million a year could be retained within the city of Cleveland, if abandoned properties were pressed into service for growing fruits and vegetables. Public markets that sell such produce can also help spur neighborhood revival. David O’Neil of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces has overseen the creation and rejuvenation of public markets around the country. Speaking at a recent community forum at the Idea Center, O’Neil pointed to the humble origins of a thriving market in Ann Arbor.

“They took an old parking lot in a warehouse district in town and they put up some very simple sheds where farmers had a place where they could sell in bad weather. That created value. Then people said, ‘Oh, we could turn these empty warehouses into stores’ and now they’ve created the Kerrytown Market District. All based on those very early transactions of five dollars at a time, three dollars at a time, creating a much, much larger value.”

Randy McShepard adds there are also INDIRECT benefits that can come from finding new uses for abandoned properties. He says his urban farm has prompted local officials to step up maintenance efforts in the neighborhood. 

“We have a playground next to us, we’re working with CPP to get streetlights turned back on, we’ve had some local streets paved thanks to the city of Cleveland --- it’s really starting to feel like a community space.”

McShepard predicts this urban agriculture project will yield about 18 local jobs. That may not sound like much in a city rife with unemployment, but there are other signs of life in the community. Next door, Ohio State University is running another urban farm. Down the street, a different group is building a 17 million dollar hydroponic growing operation, and a new café recently opened, nearby --- all using food to help revitalize an abandoned urban landscape. Granted, Kinsman Avenue is still far from a thriving thoroughfare, bustling with commerce, but perhaps this new activity will pave a way forward, and help people forget this place was ever called “the forgotten triangle”.
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