Barrier Busters

RecoveryPark Farms grows opportunities for re-entering citizens

By Weam Namou

Gary Wozniak, CEO and Founder, RecoveryPark

Gary Wozniak, CEO and Founder, RecoveryPark

Hidden amid the abandoned buildings and empty lots of Detroit's Poletown is the non-profit RecoveryPark, a redevelopment project whose focus is agriculture. RecoveryPark provides employment opportunities for residents with barriers to the job market, including veterans, recovering addicts, people with criminal records or those with low literacy rates.

Gary Wozniak, CEO and founder, established RecoveryPark in 2010 with SHAR (Substance Abuse Addiction Rehabilitation), a Detroit-based substance abuse treatment program that was established in 1969. He was not new to farming, having grown up in Shelby Township where his grandparents were farmers and sold produce at the Eastern Market.

“A hundred years ago, everything was naturally grown, was organic, and we lost these skills,” he said.

Although Wozniak received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Oakland University, he wanted to make more money than what this profession offered so he became a stock broker. He found great success, but as a result of drug addiction, he ended up in prison for three-and-a-half years for using client’s money to support his addiction.

“When I came out, I wanted to do something with my life so I applied for a low entry job and they declined me,” he said.

This felt humiliating for Wozniak, since he was sober and eager to get back to work. Swearing he’d never allow this to happen to him again, he decided to start his own business and ran several of them prior to establishing RecoveryPark.

“I had noticed some problems with the food industry over the years, with various chemicals plaguing it,” he said. “Now it’s coming full circle, with younger people more concerned with what they put in their bodies.”  

Wozniak also wanted to hire people with barriers, particularly those just coming out of prison. 

“Creating jobs for people with barriers goes to the heart of who I am,” he said. “I want to give people who have made mistakes a chance. When people come to us, we
provide the support they need to get back on their feet.”

RecoveryPark has 13 employees, 80 percent of whom are Detroit residents. They are taught farming skills, and earn $11 per hour. After 90 days of employment they receive paid healthcare, and after nine months have the opportunity to become managers. 

Edible flowers are among the specialty produce grown at RecoveryPark Farms

Edible flowers are among the specialty produce grown at RecoveryPark Farms

“Statistics show that if people keep a job for two to three years, they won’t go back to their old lifestyle,” said Wozniak.

RecoveryPark is a projected 5-year, $28 million redevelopment project whose mission is to rebuild on vacant land, create jobs and help to revitalize the neighborhood which has seen some of the most significant population losses in the past few decades. The organization has worked closely with various City of Detroit administrations, all of whom have been supportive according to Wozniak.

The footprint for RecoveryPark is 105 acres; it currently utilizes 40 acres and additional property is being acquired. “Ninety-eight percent of the land here is vacant,” said Wozniak. 

“Chene Street used to be the second busiest street in Detroit outside of Woodward,” said George Gardiner, RecoveryPark COO. 

Gardiner, who holds a B.A. in Economics from Western Michigan University and an MBA from Walsh College of Business and Accountancy, oversees RecoveryPark’s operations. He listed a number of community engagements RecoveryPark is involved in. They include launching a no dumping campaign, building a community garden and installing bus-stop seating on Chene, converting Chene-Ferry Market Entrance into a community space, founding a neighborhood business association, conducting blight cleanup on more than 60 acres of land, and boarding up dangerous houses.

“Healthy communities have high percentage of home ownership and business ownership, because they have a stake in the game,” said Wozniak. “And children learn from their parents. Most farmers learn from their families not from universities.” 

Their first food business, RecoveryPark Farms, was incorporated in 2012, which is under the umbrella of RecoveryPark’s 501(c)3 non-profit. It provides fresh, local specialty produce to top quality restaurants using novel lighting technology to support sustainable year-round growing. The farm's products are distributed by Del Bene Produce to restaurants in a 300-mile radius within 24 to 48 hours after harvesting.

“We’re not urban farming,” said Wozniak. “We’re commercial farmers in an urban area. The for-profit gives us the sustainability that we need so that, at some point, we won’t need the philanthropy, and will be able to sustain ourselves.”

Like other entrepreneurs, RecoveryPark has had financing issues, where Wozniak sometimes finds himself spending 90 percent of his time. The multimillion dollar operation received its first seed money of $5000 from Detroit Development Fund; then the Erb Family Foundation invested $25,000; followed by a $75,000 investment from the Kresge Foundation. RecoveryPark received an additional $1.1 million from the Erb Family Foundation.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “We need $7 to $10 million for next year to build the green house.” The organization's long-term goals are hydroponic growing sites and fish farming.

As a child, Wozniak came with his grandparents to the Chene-Ferry Market that was established in the 1850s and closed in 1990. He remembers the Polish and German immigrants who didn’t speak English but kept the community thriving. To help transform this area, he said, “We should be giving away land rather than selling it, and we should ease immigration rules so people who come here are those who want to be here.”