Deal in state legislature could pave the way for an urban farm at the Roof Depot site in Minneapolis

The future of Roof Depot

The future of Roof Depot

The now-closed Roof Depot site is an eerily quiet place.

Vacant lots are surrounded by a chain link fence, the gates locked up tight.

But Dean Dovolis see a future here.

“So, this thing will really become a major economic generator for this neighborhood,” he says. “And that’s what’s so exciting.”

That optimism comes from a new agreement, approved by state lawmakers.

A spending provision in two separate bills gives the City of Minneapolis funding to relocate a proposed public works facility from the Roof Depot site.

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The money is paving the way for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, or EPNI, to buy the property.

Dovolis says the Minneapolis delegation helped make this happen.  

“We asked for their help, they rose to the occasion, and they intervened on our behalf, to help us work out a compromise with the City of Minneapolis,” he notes.

EPNI has plans to build an indoor urban farm on the former superfund site.

But as part of the compromise with the city, they’ll have to raise $3.7 million by September 7th.

The group says it already has committed investors and is confident it can meet that deadline.

“I always felt in my heart the right thing was going to happen, and we were going to be where we are today,” says Cassie Holmes, who’s lived in the East Phillips neighborhood for forty-five years.

She says she’s been long concerned about underground toxic chemicals that could be disturbed if the Roof Depot warehouse were to be demolished.

“So not only arsenic, but the mobile pollution, all the trucks, the diesel trucks and all of the other cars that would have come into our community was a really big scary source of pollution,” Holmes says.

City Public Works officials and project managers declared the proposed demolition project safe, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said it had reviewed and approved a response plan for dust control and other air monitoring activities.

Holmes says she’s much happier about the urban farm plan.

“We’re going to have the opportunity as a community to purchase this land, and that’s the first most important thing, the foundation of this fight,” she says. “Let’s make sure we stop more pollution coming into our community.”

EPNI already has ambitious plans to open a fish-breeding facility, a hydroponics garden, housing spaces, even a community kitchen.

“What we’re doing… is unique and efficient,” says Clarence Bischoff, the founder and CEO of Blue Water Farms, in Goodhue County.

Bischoff hopes to establish an indoor aquaponics farm inside the warehouse, breeding walleye and growing fresh produce using the same water supply.

“It’s using the nutrients generated by the fish to provide nutrients to the plants,” he explains. “Then, as the plants take up those nutrients, it helps purify the water, so that same water can be circulated back to the fish, and everything is efficiently used.”

The overall urban farm project would be a co-op that would employ up to four-hundred people- a larger version of the community garden in Little Earth.

“Large tenants and small tenants, producing locally grown, culturally indigenous food for the neighborhood,” Dovolis notes. “So, this thing is going to become a hub that’s going to feed the neighborhood.”

Under the plan, if EPNI raises the money, the state will commit another $5.7 million to the city in 2024 and will fully repay the water fund.

Dovolis says if funding for the deal is successful, EPNI could start work on the site in about a year.

He says the group plans to keep the sprawling warehouse intact, including the eight-inch foundation.

EPNI hopes to begin moving the first tenants in, six months after that. “The icing on this cake, on this foundation, is the community dream, the community vision come to life,” Holmes says.

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