Daytonian of the Week: Jim Wellman

Driving down East Third Street, the old Crowe Manufacturing Services factory looms empty and auspicious on the right between Torrence and Findlay streets, another reminder of Dayton’s fall from industrial grace.

But around the back of the building in the former parking lot for Crowe and Honda of America Manufacturing employees, raised garden boxes full of vibrant kale, basil, kohlrabi and tomatoes show that a new purpose for the 215,000 square-foot building is starting to take root.

Jim Wellman, a Riverside native and councilman in the 1990s, has taken over improving and renovating the gargantuan building with the help of a small but committed troupe of volunteers and a few spades and hoes to create The Urban Renewal Farm (TURF). Currently, TURF consists of boxes and beds where Wellman and his volunteers grow produce and create organic soil for their own use and for sale at local markets including the Yellow Cab Night Market and Webster Street Market. But between cultivating bitter greens, they’re working to build a state-of-the-art community garden, farm and education center that would provide the members of the Huffman Historic District, where the building sits, and more with the ability to provide for themselves in an area that is unarguably a food desert in the city.

Wellman is in negotiations with the owners, nonprofit Retake Your City, to purchase the building — in exchange for keeping the building relatively secure and cleaning it out over the last four years, they’ve provided the space for him to grow his own produce. His long-term goals for TURF are ambitious, but already the wheels are turning to bring the retired Wellman’s efforts to bring healthy produce to the low-income area to life. His determination and sheer will to improve the lives of the neighbors around him, as long as it may take, are infectious, and merit his status as Daytonian of the Week.

Wellman showed us the shadowy corners, smudged windows, and wide-open rooftops that are slowly becoming space for urban agriculture, while waxing optimistic about Dayton’s future.

Tell me about what potential you saw in this factory and what you see TURF becoming.

I kind of unwittingly took the project on of cleaning it (the factory) out around 2011, and as I did more research and thinking about it, it became more and more intriguing to me. And then I emotionally bonded with the building and now I’m stuck! I was basically just utilizing the space and taking care of it, to store my tractor, work on it, and as I got more and more involved, the vision started coming to me. And the more people I get involved, the more the vision comes to fruition.

It’ll be a grow center, and also an education center. Hopefully, we’ll have one room set up by the winter with propane heaters so we can grow year-round. We’ve started a beehive for honey. We’d like to have a whole system for aquaponics, hydroponics. We’re going to have a whole vermiculture section; I’m trying to set up some contracts with the local restaurants to pick up all of their kitchen scraps, for compostable material. I’d like to put solar panels on one part of the roof, and create a sort of green roof on another part, to where it just has succulent plants to hold moisture. I’d also like to build some ADA-compatible raised boxes so that handicapped people can get all the way around.

I would like to take the front half of the second and third floor and turn it into temporary housing for some of those guys and/or women who are striving to turn their lives around. Part of their rent would be to work in the gardens or work on the building, but that’s all very long-term.

What are some of the short-term goals for TURF?

We’ve got to get electric and plumbing back in here. Getting it cleaned out; getting some roofing on it to keep it dry, start working on solar panels and/or some sort of small digester, to start building boxes to get the word out to people that we’re renting out boxes to raise fall crops — root vegetables, lettuce, mustard, cabbages, things like that.

What are your thoughts on how Dayton as a whole is progressing right now?

They’re making progress. (Montgomery County Commissioner) Judy Dodge showed a movie a few months ago at the Neon theater, Growing Cities: A Film About Urban Farming in America. Judy, I know, is a big proponent of urban agriculture, and that’s something that all municipalities and all urban areas are going to have to go to, plain and simple. I know that I probably won’t live to see it really come out, but it’s starting to.

So you think that Dayton is slowly but surely on a good track?

I believe so. I know that — and this is just my opinion, but Huber Heights and Beavercreek are following a path that got Dayton to where it’s at right now, and that’s trouble. Because they just keep expanding — with the sprawl — to carry the weight. And sooner or later, there is no sprawl to carry the residents.

At one point in time, we held more patents per capita than any other city in the world. But now, we’ve just kind of stagnated, and growth was the primary way of feeding ourselves, so to speak.

But it seems like there are more people — and I would include yourself and this project — who are finding new and different ways to innovate with the resources you have at your disposal.

I was kind of brought up that way by default, because my parents came up during the Depression, and they had to utilize everything, and they taught that to me.

One of the things I’d like to see is our young folks, our youth being drawn back more into the inner city and giving them something to come back to. Building the infrastructure further and further away from the core cities — if we can bring everyone back together in that community, to where you know your neighbor. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people around here, some of these people are starting to take a little more pride in their house. Yes, there are still problems here but it is turning around.

Are they excited for what TURF could become?

Yes, I give them vegetables every once in a while, and it just builds a relationship. We’re starting to watch out for each other’s property, being aware and calling the police as opposed to closing the curtains and going ‘hey, honey, I think they just stole, you know, ol’ Herbie’s car,’ now they’re calling the police. They’re taking an active role — they’re retaking back their city.

Interested in volunteering with The Urban Renewal Farm? Check out their Facebook page here to find out when the next volunteer day is.

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