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Can the redevelopment of a former pumping station boost Baltimore's food economy?

The future home of the Baltimore Food Hub, formerly the Eastern Pumping Station
The future home of the Baltimore Food Hub, formerly the Eastern Pumping Station - Steve Ruark
Hampden resident Kate Nolan Bryden caters about a dozen weddings, baby showers and dinner parties a year. But she is holding off upgrading her Graceful Gourmand website because she hasn’t been able to find a nearby commercial kitchen for rent that would give her more room to work. Baking 140 cookies would take just 12 minutes with a commercial kitchen. In her home kitchen, where she currently cooks, it takes her six to seven hours.
 
But three abandoned buildings in East Baltimore — used most recently as a filming location for “The Wire” —could be her salvation. That’s where developer Bill Struever, restaurateur Spike Gjerde and other partners are plotting a $16 million campus for food-related enterprises in the former Eastern Pumping Station. The Baltimore Food Hub will contain a commercial kitchen for rent, an incubator, classrooms offering small business counseling, and an urban farming operation led by Big City Farms.
 
Construction on the Baltimore Food Hub will begin early next year and will be completed by the end of 2014. Foundation grants, historic tax credits and equity will pay for the project, though funding details are still being worked out.
 
Its backers say they hope the businesses generated at the 3.5-acre site will eat into a slice of the $9.4 billion U.S. food industry and generate 100 jobs in three years. Moreover, those jobs would be created in a low-income neighborhood, near the Johns Hopkins Science + Technology Park and Johns Hopkins Medical Campus.
 
American Communities Trust, led by Bill Struever, and the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Inc. (HEBCAC) are two local nonprofits overseeing the Baltimore Food Hub. 
 
“The Food Hub will create what will hopefully be a dynamic and comprehensive ecosystem around the local food economy,” Struever says. “The food economy is one of the best opportunities to reestablish manufacturing here in Baltimore.”
 
Getting local hospitals, universities and schools interested in buying locally sourced food and making large purchases is one of the Baltimore Food Hub’s goals.
 
 “We're true believers when it comes to what locally sourced products can mean to the food economy,” Gjerde says.
 
Gjerde will be using space at the Baltimore Food Hub to can and preserve tomatoes, sauerkraut, peppers and other items for Woodberry Kitchen and his other restaurants. Until that project is ready, Gjerde says he’ll do the prepping at his new farmhouse diner in Belvedere Square.
 
"All of a sudden there’s this energy and focus on food in a lot of interesting ways," says Spike Gjerde. "All of a sudden there's this energy and focus on food in a lot of interesting ways. It’s super exciting.”
 
The Baltimore Food Hub is modeled loosely on the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises, a Philadelphia food incubator that opened last year. American Communities Trust tapped the man behind Philly’s plans, Greg Heller, as the Baltimore Food Hub’s project manager.
 
At 13,000 square feet, the Philadelphia incubator is about one-third of the size of the one planned for Baltimore.
 
“This is a much bigger and more ambitious vision but one that’s going to pay off by having that critical mass on a single campus,” Heller says of the Baltimore Food Hub.
 
Heller says he found out in his research on food incubators that there are more than 140 of them across the country. “I tried to learn from things that do work and things that don’t.”
 
One of the things he learned is that entrepreneurs need not only a shared kitchen, but advice on funding, insurance, and marketing.
 
“What I’ve seen is that projects that are not as successful are ones that say here’s a kitchen, good look with your business. Entrepreneurs need a range of resources — the facilities and the kitchen equipment are just one piece of that puzzle.”
 
HEBCAC Executive Director Edward Sabatino says the incubator would rely on free resources as much as possible. For instance, someone from the U.S. Small Business Administration could hold a workshop on tax preparation.
 
This sort of advice would boost Bryden's catering operation, she says.
 
“I didn’t grow up in the restaurant business. It would be interesting to see what [the Food Hub] would do in terms of bringing the right group of advisors.”

BmoreMedia Editor Julekha Dash is a former senior reporter for the Baltimore Business Journal and a former staff writer for Computerworld. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

Photos by STEVE RUARK
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