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Appleton nonprofit group COTS says self-sustainability key for Riverview Gardens – The Post Crescent – 1/3/2012

Kyle Daly, Post Crescent staff writer

APPLETON — An Appleton-based nonprofit group that plans to transform Riverview Country Club into a community garden and green space will rely on restaurant proceeds, on-site composting revenue, grants and community-supported agriculture to make the operation financially self-sustainable.
But reaching the point of self-sustainability is going to take some time, said John Schmidt, chairman of Community Outreach Temporary Services (COTS) board of directors. He estimates it will take at least 2 1/2 years before the operation becomes profitable.
The funding models on the drawing board have cash flows turning positive within 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years, Schmidt said. A preliminary estimate puts negative cash flow at about $400,000 — the amount initially needed to cover operation costs.
“Those are models we think we can improve upon,” he said.
COTS purchased the 77-acre golf club on Dec. 22 for $2.6 million. The group’s proposed project — called Riverview Gardens — includes plans to construct 40 year-round greenhouses as well as more than two miles of bike and nature trails.
Using the clubhouse as a community-based restaurant or partnering with an existing restaurant to run the facility also is a possibility.
In addition to providing locally produced food to low-income people, Riverview Gardens would serve as a job-training site for clients of various Fox Cities service organizations. Trainees could total more than 60 people each year.
Private donations totaling $1.6 million and a loan from Community First Credit Union enabled COTS to purchase the golf course. Schmidt said COTS’ goal is to pay off the loan within two years through donations.
Schmidt said initial profit generators could be the restaurant or a small on-site composting operation. The group also expects to apply for grants in the project’s early years, but COTS members would not elaborate on the type of grants or which groups would provide them.
COTS’ ability to make a buck off food production will come from the implementation of an economic model called community-supported agriculture (CSA). The popular farming structure has allowed members of communities across the U.S. to purchase local, organic produce.
Oren Jakobson, a COTS employee working on the Riverview Garden project, said the economic model reduces some of a farmer’s financial risks by transferring a portion of it to the consumer.
While the operational structure of CSAs can vary, a basic version of the model requires the consumer to purchase a “share” before the growing season, which provides the farmer with some financial security. Once produce is available, the farmer sends portions of the yield to the shareholder.
COTS members have not decided if they will adopt this version of the model.
“In the beginning, it’s very important that we are selling the food in order to sustain the program,” Jakobson said.
Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2007 showed that 12,549 farms nationwide used the CSA structure.
Wisconsin — tied with Washington — ranked seventh among the 50 states with 437 farms.
Jakobson said a work-share program for low- income or unemployed people would be implemented, allowing them to trade in hours they work in the gardens for either a discounted or free share.
A variety of plants and trees yielding vegetables, fruit and nuts will grow inside the greenhouses and elsewhere on the property. Edible fish will be raised inside the greenhouses and aquaponics — a food-production system that combines fish farming with plant cultivation — will be used as well. Leftover food would be donated to transitional shelters or food pantries.
Jakobson said indoor organic agriculture can turn a profit if the grower can offset capital expenses such as equipment and labor.
This shouldn’t be a problem for COTS, as much of the equipment needed to maintain Riverview Gardens came with the site’s purchase. Lawn mowers, a tractor, repair truck and other tools were included in the $2.6 million deal.
COTS’ job-training program ServiceWorks Inc. will partly provide the labor to maintain the facility. Community members also can volunteer, and the project is expected to create between 50 and 100 permanent jobs.
How to help
Donations for the project can be made through COTS. Contributions for the initiative should be designated to COTS Riverview Gardens Fund. For more information, call 920-843-7269.

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