A small crowd of politicians and urban-agriculture advocates gathered March 25 at City Hall to announce that the Port Authority of Kansas City and Brooklyn, New York's BrightFarms, an urban greenhouse builder, had worked out a 10-year lease for a multimillion-dollar project. BrightFarms would build a hydroponic farm on a nearly five-acre plot of land adjacent to Berkley Riverfront Park. The 100,000-square-foot development is expected to produce 1 million pounds of tomatoes, lettuce and herbs annually.
"Our mission is to improve the environmental impact of the food-supply chain and increase people's consumption of healthy, fresh food," BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot tells The Pitch. "And we do that by growing in the same community where we are selling, rather than growing something to ship to an entire continent."
BrightFarms began as a greenhouse consultancy in 2006, designing rooftop gardens for clients in New York City. Today, the organization is arguably the country's foremost urban hydroponic operation (a method of growing plants in which water substitutes for soil). A greenhouse opened last month in Lower Makefield Township, Pennsylvania, and there are plans for similar facilities in Brooklyn; Oklahoma City; St. Paul, Minnesota; and St. Louis.
When BrightFarms set out to expand beyond its initial farm properties last fall, KC was one of 20 cities that the company scouted.
"Kansas City responded aggressively, and our development team came back after a visit and said the future is here in Kansas City," Lightfoot says.
"While we'd considered some commercial and office use, BrightFarms was, in many ways, a better fit for the space," Collins says.
The KC project could move ahead quickly, with the greenhouse opening by the end of the year. BrightFarms is in talks with several area grocery stores, and Collins says the lease could be finalized in the next month.
As part of the deal, the Port Authority would upgrade the public infrastructure, building out water, sewer, gas and electricity lines for the development. It would not provide any economic incentives for the project, though the greenhouse operator could apply for a property-tax abatement from the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.
Collins sees BrightFarms as an extension of the Port Authority's efforts over the past several years to integrate Berkley Riverfront Park into the social and economic fabric of KC.
"It helps our momentum because we already have a project in development," he says. "We just can't build anything the size of the Sears Tower, because they need their sun."
Both Collins and Lightfoot maintain that the greenhouse would not stifle residential development, beyond height requirements. The hydroponic farm, they say, would produce no agricultural runoff. Whereas farmers who till crops in soil use fertilizer or pesticides, which leach into surrounding water, hydroponic greenhouses operate on a closed loop, with their water filtered and recirculated.
"The Berkley Riverfront is our front door to downtown," Collins says.
During his recent visit to KC, Lightfoot stopped for lunch at Anton's Taproom to see that restaurant's basement hydroponic operation, and he toured the City Market.
"People think Kansas City is about barbecue," Lightfoot says. "But there's this incredibly strong local-food movement. When we were first exploring the idea, I thought maybe the heartland wasn't ready. Then I came here and realized I was wrong. I think Kansas City will be a top-five city for progressiveness when it comes to urban agriculture."