The vertical farm is on the rise in Westbrook

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The Vertical Harvest project, on the corner of William L. Clarke Drive and Mechanic Street in Westbrook, is scheduled to open in late 2023. The project, which aims to bring fresh produce to the town while helping to revitalize downtown city, will include the Vertical Harvest building itself, a parking lot and apartments. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

WESTBROOK – In a former parking lot behind businesses along Main Street, road rollers have flattened a one-block strip of dirt and debris to pave the way for a new mixed-use development that the city hopes , will fundamentally change its downtown area.

In the past two weeks, a steel structure has risen near Mechanic Street – the first sign of upward momentum for a six-story indoor farmhouse that the developer says will employ nearly four dozen disabled workers mental health and will produce millions of pounds of microgreens for the region’s ever-expanding food scene.

This part of the project, developed by Vertical Harvest based in Jackson, Wyoming, is expected to be completed within two years. The construction of the other components – 50 to 60 apartments and a 400-space car park – was delayed by utility problems and the discovery of a cornice under the site.

The garage will allow the city to consolidate its downtown parking lot, opening up additional land for commercial and residential development.

“The economic impact on our downtown is going to be huge with the addition of the parking garage. We really want people in our downtown area to be able to support our businesses,” Westbrook Mayor Mike Foley said. “The goal, really, is to have residential expansion in our downtown area because the area is in a housing crisis.”

A rendering of the Vertical Harvest project, currently under construction on William Clarke Drive in Westbrook. In addition to the urban indoor farm, the development will include a parking garage and apartments. Photo courtesy of Vertical Harvest

But without the Vertical Harvest farm, Foley said, there wasn’t enough demand for the parking lot alone. The idea to couple the two projects came from developer Greg Day, who is also behind the massive Rock Row development going on in the street. Day, who did not respond to interview requests, had heard of Vertical Harvest’s original farm in Wyoming and wanted to bring a similar project to Westbrook as an “innovative component of its master plan,” said said Vertical Harvest general manager Nona Yehia.

Yehia was intrigued, not least because of the project’s proximity to Portland and its food scene.

Portland is a amazing food city … (Foley) really had a vision that aligned with ours that the farm could contribute to the community,” Yehia said.

The result was a public-private partnership that funds the project through tax increment financing, or a TIF, which uses the expected increase in tax revenue generated by the development. As the initial TIF was not generating enough revenue, it was coupled with another TIF on a natural gas substation being built in the city. Foley thinks this is a worthwhile investment of public money.

“As it becomes more difficult to maintain farmland and land becomes scarcer, people will look to (indoor farming) as the future,” he said.

POTENTIAL IMPACTS

Unlike traditional Maine farms, Vertical Harvest’s massive 68-foot urban hydroponic garden uses no soil and will be able to grow produce year-round. In her first year, Yehia estimates it will be £2.6million. Food wholesaler Native Maine will supply the microgreens to local restaurants and grocery stores.

“WWe’re really creating a more resilient supply chain for communities,” Yehia said.

But that could have downsides, according to Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, who worries about the impact on local farmers.

Farmers are very concerned about the disruption of relationships they have established with wholesale and foodservice markets,” she said. “We are hearing from farmers who are very concerned about the prospect of a glut in the lettuce market, as cut greens are a major factor in the profitability of their businesses.”

Alexander said 31 MOFGA-certified farms in the surrounding area are at risk of being squeezed out of the market by a larger and wealthier commercial farm.

Yehia said the company hopes to work with local farmers to ensure it doesn’t disrupt the local economy.

“We seek to be complementary to local farmers, not predatory,” she said.

Alexander is also skeptical about the environmental friendliness of the project.

“Indoor farming is claimed to use less water, but water in a soil-based farming system does more than just supply water to a crop, it is part of a larger ecosystem that supports beneficial plants, insects and wildlife,” she said. “We also have questions about the facility’s waste streams, such as crop residues, chemicals used to grow plants, sewage, wash water and plastic packaging.”

But overall the project could have environmental benefits, according to Sam Milton, founder of Cape Elizabeth-based consultancy Climate Resources Group, which advises developers on how to minimize their impact.

“(Vertical farming) uses more energy than farming in the sun, but if you look at it over a 12-month cycle, it can have a lower carbon footprint than outdoor growing and shipping these crops around the world,” he said.

Yehia hopes the business will become more energy efficient like Westbrook is doing.

“These take energy to work, there’s no doubt about that,” Yehia said. “One of the reasons we partner with municipalities is that as the grid gets greener, so do we.”

BEFORE BENEFITS, OBSTACLES

Another unusual aspect of Vertical Harvest’s model is its approach to hiring, which employs almost exclusively people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – people who frequently encounter employers who have low expectations of them, a said Rachel Dyer, associate director of the Maine Disabilities Council.

She believes Vertical Harvest will help raise awareness of this issue by hiring them in visible and meaningful roles.

“It won’t solve the chronic unemployment of those who have (intellectual and developmental disabilities), but it seems to me they have a good understanding of the barriers faced by those who do,” she said. “Being employed is really good for people’s health and relationships.”

But it will still take some time before the city reaps the benefits of the project. For now, residents of Westbrook are dealing with road closures and a large, active construction site downtown, where complications have added to the schedule.

The construction of the garage and apartments has been delayed by the discovery of a ledge or bedrock, as well as the need to relocate and renovate utilities, namely storm water and sewer lines , which are under the old car park.

“No one expected a ledge to pop up in the middle of Main Street,” said Westbrook’s director of planning and code enforcement, Jennie Franceschi. “We are rerouting these (utility) lines around the project, through the streets, which has been a bit more problematic than we hoped.”

Meanwhile, a section of nearby Mechanic Street has been closed since June, disrupting nearby businesses.

Keri Li, owner of the China Villa restaurant, said she had to cut her employees’ hours to save on expenses.

“Customers say that because of the traffic, they don’t want to enter this area. It really impacted our business,” Li said.

Still, she’s grateful the city has made Facebook videos to let residents know that Mechanic Street businesses are still open.

“(The city) does a lot too. They try to help us. We just accepted what happened,” Li said.

And the city is eager to find out what the project’s impact might be.

“We are really excited to see the energy that this particular company offers. It’s something completely different from what’s happening elsewhere in the city,” Franceschi said.


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