Food hub coming to Southwest Michigan

Published 9:00am Thursday, September 26, 2013

With countless farms and dairies in southwest Michigan, one might think it wouldn’t be so difficult to find homegrown food in grocery stores. If a group of Niles residents receive the resources they need for their project, buying local will become a lot easier.

Over the past several weeks, a group of community members have gathered together workshop ideas of building a food hub in downtown Niles.

Food hubs have grown to be an entrepreneurial phenomenon across the entire country, with several in Michigan cities such as Paw Paw, Lansing and Ann Arbor. To put it simply, a food hub is a business that serves as a conglomerate organization to manage the aggregation, distribution and marketing of local and regional food products.

“I envision it would be a local food hub that would serve as a destination food business in downtown Niles, and would serve retail customers as well as wholesale and be that hub that allows our local farmers and people that are utilizing our kitchen incubator to have a sale space, a year round market” said Lisa Croteau, Director of Marketing and Administration for Niles Main Street.

The committee has come up with several ideas for types of organizations that they would like to see involved in the food hub.

Some ideas include creating a mobile food truck that would transport affordable local foods from the food hub to local neighborhoods. Others suggested involving youth from local high schools to build community gardens as a learning project. Another suggested providing educational sessions to teach the community how to cook the food that can be purchased at the food hub.

The list of possible businesses was enormous, but the group remained focused on the idea that everything within the food hub should be affordable and accessible to people of all economical backgrounds.

“I don’t think that upscale is a word that should be used with this local food hub,” said Croteau. “I see it as something that will be a year-round destination for our community and surrounding communities. We’re not a tourist community. We don’t have hoards of dollars coming in here. We need something that fits us.”

Location

As of now, the committee is aiming to use the historic Niles Gallery building, located on the corner of Main and 2nd Streets in downtown Niles.

“The gallery has been several things over the years, and nothing ever seems to work out,” she said.

Community Development Director Juan Ganum said there is a lot of stigma attached to the building because of the amount of businesses that have failed to occupy it. Other committee members said the building is unusable until a new roof is installed and the building is renovated.

The Gallery is owned by the City of Niles, but the Downtown District Association has been put in charge of the building.

The Gallery contains two stories and a basement, totaling approximately 12,000 sq. feet of usable space. That usable space, however, is broken up into several small areas that the committee members say could be challenging to work with. Even still, the committee agrees it would be a good place for the hub.

“It’s a significant historic building that needs to have something done with it,” said Croteau.

Challenges

While the committee is excited and hopeful for the food hub’s possibilities, many members are still realistic about the challenges of moving forward.

“The problem that I think we run into is that there’s so much food available in the supermarkets around here, so many baked goods that you just think ‘why would somebody use this facility?” said Chicky Landgraf, another committee member.

To combat this issue, the committee discussed providing businesses that do not already exist or are not well-known in Niles, such as food pantries and cooking classes.

In the end, though, the committee said their biggest obstacle is finding financial support.

“Without money, this won’t happen. We need money,” said Joe Sobieralski, executive director of Southwestern Michigan Economic Growth Alliance.

Moving Forward

Despite the challenges, the committee is determined to follow through with the project. The next steps in the planning process for the food hub are to develop stakeholders and interested businesses, and to secure funding for the project.

Interested patrons are encouraged to attend the next planning meeting, held the fourth Thursday of the month. More details will follow on time and location.

 

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