John Hantz is waiting for approval on his purchase of 40 acres of the Michigan Fairgrounds for use as a commercial farm. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
John Hantz is ready to start farming in Detroit with 40 acres and -- he promises -- no mule.
The state of Michigan is likely to approve his purchase of 40 acres of the Michigan Fairgrounds for use as a commercial farm, a deal that could go through by the end of the month. "We could start overnight. We've got the equipment, everything, ready to go," says Hantz, who lives in Detroit but grew up surrounded by farmland in Romeo.
Forty acres is a sliver of the 1,000-acre tracts he envisions. But it's likely to be all he'll have to farm this summer season.
Despite his millions, his genuine interest in rethinking Detroit's economic plight, and his entrepreneurial daring, Hantz is mired in bureaucracy.
The city's financial crisis has helped elect a new mayor and raised the profile of urban agriculture -- but not enough to enable Hantz's vision to become more than 40 acres of potential reality.
"Maximum crisis equals minimum change," says Hantz, who made a tidy fortune in financial services and businesses from lemonade to bowling.
Why can't the city speed the plow?
Regulations hold up every potential furrow. The city can't offer Hantz agricultural zoning and tax rates because there's no official urban agricultural policy. "It's certainly more complicated than developers would like," says Kathryn Lynch Underwood, who led the Detroit department of city planning work group on the subject. The group's report is still in draft stage and official policy unresolved.
Even if Hantz fails to get the fairgrounds plot, he's determined to grow crops. "I've got backup plan after backup plan," he says, including a suburban farm site he bought recently. Where? He won't say. "But it got done in two weeks," he says, "and it was cheaper than in the city, and everyone was very welcoming."
Trees and aeroponics
A suburban farm will enable him to demonstrate the new technology and ambition of his bold ideas: It will be urban agriculture, but in the suburbs: He's enlisted believers with influence -- from the Kellogg Foundation to Michigan State University to agriculture industry executives -- to attest to his credibility.
"It won't be a conventional farm," he promises, but an exhibition of state-of-the-art agriculture using aeroponics -- the science of growing in the air -- and other advanced ways of growing year-round in an urban environment. He's going to start by growing a variety of lettuces, apples and probably trees for timber or Christmas. Trees, he has learned, as a crop also reclaim contaminated land.
Hantz said the city is over-valuing land that has no value until someone can pay for it. He points out that the city is paying for vacant land that costs the city in taxes and maintenance.
The crisis that spawned his idea to use vacant land for for-profit agriculture has yet to create real momentum. We're still stuck.
"That's the opposite of how it should be," he says, during an interview in his Southfield office.
Hantz burst into headlines in his 20s as an American Express Financial Services executive who launched his own firm, taking most of the staff with him. But he's also a Detroiter who has willfully poured millions of dollars into renovating homes and grounds in his Indian Village neighborhood, money he's unlikely to recover in his lifetime.
His passion for the city is rightfully matched by his frustration with a city that was once the world's greatest business innovator and now can't help an ambitious businessman put his stake in the ground.
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