July 23, 2009 at 9:22 am

Laura Berman

John Hantz envisions vacant Detroit land as a working farm

John Hantz, shown in the garden of his Indian Village home, wants to create a commercial farm as a model for revitalizing a post-industrial area like Detroit. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

John Hantz grew up in small-town Romeo, dreaming of living in the big city: Detroit. For the last 20 years, as he quickly amassed a following at American Express Financial Services and then a sizable fortune through his Southfield-based holding company, he stuck to that vision.

On a few leafy blocks of Detroit's historic Indian Village, he bought and renovated nine homes, including the imposing, immaculately restored 90-year-old estate where he still lives.

As most of the city's affluent retreated from Detroit and the city shrunk, Hantz's reverse commute took him daily through its most desperate neighborhoods. Over time he watched houses crumble and burn, watched the pheasants flying low over waist-high grasses. "I had plenty of time to think about it," he says. "People ask me if I'm part of a movement. I am. I'm part of the 'I Live Here Movement.' "

His latest salvo: Hantz Farms, L.L.C. He intends to create a working, commercial farm -- no pigs or horses or livestock. Out of urban wasteland, he'll create Midwestern heartland, combining the expertise of cutting-edge agricultural and food scientists with his business acumen and leadership ability.

That's his plan -- although no one outside his inner circle has seen the details. That's his money -- although, because this will be a private enterprise, he is not showing his wallet. What he has is a reputation as a doer, an executer.

"I admire him most because he's an implementer," says John Shea, Hantz's lawyer and close friend. "When the guy says he'll do something, he does."

It's an ambitious and unconventional idea, one that addresses Detroit's abundance of vacant land, builds on the popularity of community gardens and then pushes the frontier.

These are characteristics consistent with Hantz's career, which has segued -- mostly profitably, if unpredictably -- from financial planning to air charter (Hantz Air) to lemonade (New South Lemonade).

An admirer of original thinkers -- from Ayn Rand to Henry Ford, from Albert Einstein to Attila the Hun -- Hantz is a quirky entrepreneur who has combined a modest aw shucksdemeanor with quiet self-confidence. He is a collector of memorabilia and antiques, a driver of used cars (a Volvo wagon recently replaced an older Taurus), a homebody who avoids charity balls and political fund-raisers.

Whether Hantz Farms ultimately proves him to be a visionary pioneer in the mold of the industrialists and innovators he admires is an open question. But if he and Detroit work out a mutually acceptable way to explore the answer, Hantz says he's willing to plunk down up to $30 million of his own fortune to make the urban desert bloom -- and to create a shimmering international model of a transformed post-industrial city.

"We're not talking about corn and soybeans," says Hantz, who describes new agricultural methods for high-density orchards that can create vivid bursts of bloom in the spring and abundant crops of apples in the fall. There are hoop houses that can produce lettuce or tomatoes 11 months of the year, even in southeastern Michigan's climate.

What about soil contamination? Under tutelage from some of Michigan State University and the Kellogg Foundation's scientists, he recognizes that "some land will need to be planted in trees." So picture a juvenile pine forest, paved with walking and biking trails, renewing yesterday's junkyards for tomorrow's specialty crops.

Hantz talks about using biofuels and wind power, about creating a futuristic new farm that will attract international attention and provide wholesome, local food to Detroit residents.

In the nexus of social action and profit motive, in the cause of creating value out of fallow land that's momentarily worthless, John Hantz has latched onto an intriguing idea. A year ago, it might have seemed far-fetched. Today, even the once-skeptical are signing on, because Hantz can bring not only an idea but financial heft and business experience. Republicans like the entrepreneurial aspect of the plan; environmentalists appreciate his interest in wind power and biofuels and natural, wholesome food; food experts appreciate the idea of a commercial farm employing and feeding people.

"I've invested my life, my emotions and my money in Detroit, and it's clear to me that the problems of the city are not going to go away by themselves," says Hantz, who was interviewed at his Southfield office and Indian Village home. "I'd be happy to just be the idea guy and let somebody else take it and run with it, but I don't see anybody lining up to do that."

"He thinks outside the box," says his ex-wife, Diane Hantz, still close with Hantz, who remembers her high-school sweetheart's intense work ethic and knack for financial success. "He's always had these unique ways of looking at things."

Low-key in demeanor, with a folksy manner and slight Midwestern twang, Hantz grew up with the challenge of dyslexia, a learning disability that required him to think and see differently than most people just to be able to read.

In 1997, Hantz abruptly left American Express Financial Services, taking 80 brokers with him -- a move that resulted in lawsuits and hard feelings -- but also proved his charisma and leadership ability.

"I followed him," says John Machinski, now a Hantz Group executive. "I've never regretted it. He's tenacious. Any leader has a vision of how things might look, but he has the coping skills to deal with all the kinds of things that get in the way."

Even those burned by Hantz's defection in 1997 speak highly of his intelligence, discipline, leadership ability and talent. Roger Rogos, who oversaw Hantz as a regional American Express vice president, says Hantz was earning more than $1 million a year in the 1990s, largely because he trained and inspired the brokers who worked for him. A graduate of Northwood Institute (now Northwood University), Hantz moved almost immediately from sales to management at American Express -- and then sought out other underachieving young people in his own image.

He turned around underperforming offices by paying close attention to what clients said they needed -- and then delivering it. "He taught people how to listen," says Rogos. But Rogos says Hantz was very aggressive, willing to push the envelope -- to take risks that sometimes made Rogos uneasy.

In 1995, his firm Hantz Financial Services was fined $650,000 by the National Association of Securities Dealers (now FINRA), which said the firm failed to disclose to clients some conflicts of interest.

Hantz points out that no state or federal regulatory agency objected and says the firm has changed its disclosure policies to comply with FINRA.

He is quietly buying land, Hantz says, seeking acreage adjacent to land the city has already acquired in a land bank. His plan is to pluck abandoned land from disuse and unpaid taxes.

In return, he wants the city to tax the property as agricultural land, not residential or commercial property, and to contribute 30 percent of the abandoned land.

He says he'll pay taxes on all of the land and create a viable, ongoing agricultural enterprise that will dazzle the world.

Those who have worked closely with him describe Hantz as a man who does what he says he will.

"He's a learner, an impressive one," says Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the Michigan State University College of Natural Resources and Agriculture. "He's focused on the idea of providing fresh, wholesome food, of helping Detroit, of making this work. He's a very intelligent person, and his mission meshes with ours. We'd like to do whatever we can to help him."

Unlike the Greening of Detroit or other community garden programs, Hantz intends to make a profit, although "I won't expect the same kind of returns I do in my other businesses." MSU's Armstrong agrees that sustainability is important.

Says Hantz: The last thing Detroit needs is another non-profit. "Those are important," he says, "but the city has plenty of those." What it lacks is commercial enterprise that beautifies and improves the city, and that, he says, is his goal.

For now, everyone from City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. to Detroit Economic Growth Corp. chief George Jackson Jr. stand ready to embrace what even 12 months ago seemed absurd.

The city's abundant acreage -- and depleted population -- have opened a window for Hantz, who is betting that state-of-the-art farming methods will create beauty and restore financial value to the city he loves. "I see this becoming my legacy," he says.

That Hantz is enlisting broad support speaks both to the innate power of his idea, the force of his personality and resources, and a new realism that's taking root in Detroit. In this climate, the once preposterous idea -- a farm in the city -- may just make sense for all.

lberman@detnews.com">lberman@detnews.com (248) 647-7221

John Hantz is described by a financial colleague as having "the ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
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