Score (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Mike Score, the president of Hantz Woodlands, hand-delivered a $431,000 check to the city of Detroit last week — payment, along with a $10,000 deposit — for vacant land that will become a mini-forest.
As the president of Hantz Woodlands, an urban farming subsidiary created by financial services mogul John Hantz, Score’s a special breed of executive: he spends most days in the field — with chain saw, Bobcat skidster and a woodchipper that ingests frozen branches and spews out wood pellets.
Come spring, Score and a team of workers will plant an urban forest in one of Detroit’s most depressed areas — an area of about a square mile on the city’s lower east side.
It’s been five long years since Hantz, an idiosyncratic capitalist who lives in Indian Village, proposed the world’s largest urban farm. The farm idea captured some imaginations, and enraged others. To Score, then an agricultural expert at Michigan State University, the idea was magnetic: he’d written about the tension between rural and urban people and the opportunity for urban agriculture “to reduce racial discrimination, overcome prejudice and develop a healthy dependency on each other.”
A member of an Ann Arbor Mennonite community, Score — who looks and sounds a bit like Kevin Costner — had worked on agricultural missions in Africa and Kentucky. He grew up on Detroit’s east side, not far from the land Hantz would buy.
Hantz, whose Hantz Group sells stocks, bonds and financial services, began working with Score in late 2008 —and then the waiting, negotiating, and rethinking began. Plans now call for 15,000 hardwood trees —each about three feet tall —to be planted on about 150 acres in its first phase.
There’s no vast tract of farmland: Just individual parcels, some block-sized, others single lots, interspersed between the occasional occupied homes in one of the city’s lowest density areas.
All told, the project includes 1,600 lots so far, including 40 derelict houses Hantz Woodlands has promised to demolish over the next year. Residents had the chance to buy lots next to their homes before Hantz could buy them and about 100 did.
For years, the Hantz team has been working with city officials, local residents and hostile activists to overcome objections and close the deal. Score, overcame suspicion by listening, answering questions, and just plain showing up.
“I have yet to meet the first angry neighbor,” Score likes to say. Residents are mostly delighted to see the Hantz Woodlands crew carting away discarded tires, household trash, and even a boat or two.
Over these past five years, Score has become part of the fabric of redevelopment, working closely with the Lower East Side Action Plan, an alliance of local activists, philanthropy and the city planning department.
“People see Mike Score and his guys out there every day. They know him. They see him cutting down weeds so high you can’t see through or over them,” says Maggie DeSantis, a resident, activist and leader of LEAP. “At first people were mostly worried about this ‘urban farm’ idea. Now they ask Mike, ‘Will you please mow the lot next to my house.’ Which he always does.”
DeSantis, who is in Washington, D.C., this week, accepting an EPA “Smart Growth” award for LEAP, shares some of Hantz and Score’s outlook on vacant land. “Normal real estate isn’t working here,” she says. “But empty land with proximity to water has value, primarily for renewable energy and agriculture.”
DeSantis says other urban agriculture ventures are also looking at the area.
The Hantz Woodlands project sparked outrage initially because it’s for-profit. Hantz, a classic capitalist, believes that the city needs for-profit ventures: It needs people like him to pay cash for land, pay taxes on the land and eventually imbue worthless land with value.
Will the trees ever grow tall enough to be harvested? Will they be replaced by some other crops, like Christmas evergreens or broccoli, as urban agriculture gets more common? Or will the trees provide a pleasant green canopy until Hantz can eventually sell the land to a developer?
None of that future is yet clear.
For now, Hantz Woodlands is clearing the land and pledging to maintain it, while enhancing its beauty. There’s a farmer-in-charge who has won credibility and respect over five long years, as the wheels of government approval turned slowly.
“This is what makes it work for me. All this time has enabled us to build relationships with people. It’s been a fascinating, convoluted process, but in the end, it’s all positive,” says Score.
Score hasn’t encountered an angry neighbor yet —but last summer, he was warned that a woman was looking for him.
“Heart thumping, I went and looked for her,” he recalls. She wanted to thank him — and to bring his crew lunch.