Elliot Hughes

Community Leaders Worry About Growing Power

Financial troubles point to uncertain future for Will Allen’s famed urban farming organization.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Dec 3rd, 2017 09:06 am
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The Growing Power cafe and market, at 2719 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, is permanently closed after the nonprofit ran into financial difficulties. Photo by Elliot Hughes.

The Growing Power cafe and market, at 2719 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, is permanently closed after the nonprofit ran into financial difficulties. Photo by Elliot Hughes.

When Ossie Kendrix was a college student coming home for a visit, he used to buy fresh produce for his mother and grandma at a stand on Silver Spring Drive. When he started working at City Hall, he’d grab some of the same food out of a “pop-up shop” nearby.

The man behind that produce, Will Allen, who founded the nonprofit Growing Power and became a nationally recognized leader in urban farming, helped Kendrix visualize more clearly what was possible for an African-American male to achieve.

Growing Power founder and CEO Will Allen participated in the nonprofit’s first Good Food Revolution 5k walk and run in 2014. Allen announced his retirement last week. Photo by Jabril Faraj.

Growing Power founder and CEO Will Allen participated in the nonprofit’s first Good Food Revolution 5k walk and run in 2014. Allen announced his retirement last week. Photo by Jabril Faraj.

“Seeing that really made me recognize the level of opportunity as an African-American male to lead an organization and also be passionate about the work that benefits the community,” said Kendrix, who is now the president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. “Just to see the trajectory of Growing Power … was a blessing for me.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Nov. 20 that Allen was retiring, and that the organization he leaves behind has an uncertain future. Growing Power is mired in financial trouble with pending legal judgments totaling nearly a half-million dollars.

That news hits hard for some community leaders, who appreciated Growing Power for its green, sustainable food practices, its influence on urban farming and the healthy food it spread throughout the city. But those interviewed feel good about the future of urban farming and that of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where the nonprofit had a cafe-market.

“It left a sort of thought in my mind that we would be missing a person that brought a very unique opportunity to Milwaukee… with the health-conscious focus [of] Growing Power,” said Deshea Agee, executive director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District, where Growing Power operated a cafe and produce market. “We’re losing the active mind of a genius.”

Growing Power, which was founded in 1995, will now be led by Operations Manager Brian Sales, who also co-founded Green Veterans, a nonprofit that introduces military veterans to green entrepreneurship. When asked about the future of Growing Power, Sales said, “Green Veterans Wisconsin is spearheading and architecting the transition and reorganization of Growing Power.”

An announcement about the nonprofit’s future is expected soon, he said.

Growing Power’s website has been stripped of all content and workers could be seen emptying the cafe-market at 2719 N. King Drive on Wednesday.

Several people lamented that Milwaukee will lose a face that brought positive attention to the city. Allen, 68, was a recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” in 2008 and was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine two years later.

But at the same time, they expressed confidence that the urban farming movement in Milwaukee would continue. Growing Power helped nurture several other urban agriculture groups in the city, including Walnut Way Conservation Corp., which was co-founded by Sharon Adams, a former board member of Growing Power.

Adams and Deneine Powell, executive director of Groundwork Milwaukee, both said Allen’s legacy of urban farming will continue in the city. Powell said the movement now has an opportunity to experiment with new ideas that differ from the Growing Power model.

“Urban agriculture has to change, has to shift, has to be flexible and I think this is an opportunity for that to happen,” Powell said. “Will has laid the foundation.”

The cafe-market on King Drive had not been operating for about a year, according to Leo Ries of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., which owns the space. Ries said he is “actively working” with a new tenant that would fill a much-desired void in the neighborhood: a gathering space.

“I think the fact that there’s so much desire for that type of venue, I think that bodes well for the next tenant,” Ries said.

Ries and Agee both declined to give any specifics about the possible new tenant, although Agee said it would be a “second location” for the business and that it could open “really soon.”

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

7 thoughts on “Community Leaders Worry About Growing Power”

  1. John Casper says:

    Elliott, many thanks.

    “But at the same time, they expressed confidence that the urban farming movement in Milwaukee would continue. Growing Power helped nurture several other urban agriculture groups in the city, including Walnut Way Conservation Corp., which was co-founded by Sharon Adams, a former board member of Growing Power.”

    Minus the criminality, Will and others have been to Big Ag what Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty were in 1773 when they dumped the East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor.

  2. Frank Schneiger says:

    A classic case of the charismatic, founder, genius who can’t let go. This happens all the time, and the screw up areas are almost always the same: finances, infrastructure, governance and hiring the right people. And it’s always hard for the founder to let go of “my baby” and bring in people with “second generation” skills sets.

    That is why these founder to stage two transitions are so painful and sometimes sink the organization. But, Mr. Allen has created something of real value and also made it a signature of creative Milwaukee. Those are reason enough for people to come together, clean up the finances and put in place an infrastructure and plan to sustain this initiative and organization for a long time to come. And, I would not be too hard on Will Allen. He has a lot of very creative and successful company in falling into the founder trap..

  3. Lucy Cooper says:

    Great comment by Frank Schneider. I’d just add the observation that the visionary founder or leader always needs a financial manager even in the beginning. That’s hard though because the finance person will sometimes have to say “no” to the founders latest dream.

    Even in established organizations like Centro Hispano- which just lost Head Start funding because of financial mismanagement- it is bad to let the visionary have control of the checkbook because when the financial reality gets in the way of some bold dream, the visionary will dismiss the concern as “Bean counting” and forge ahead, often commingling designated grant money with general funds. Grantor audits or creditors sue and organization gets destroyed.

  4. John Casper says:

    IMHO Joel Salatin’s “Everything I want to do is illegal,” explains it much better.

    https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Want-Do-Illegal-Stories/dp/0963810952

    U.S. Department of Agriculture is captured by Big Ag, Monsanto, ConAgra, Cargill, ADM, …

    As long as factory farms avoid prosecution for livestock cruelty on a scale never imagined, common sense leaders such as Will Allen will be forced out of the business.

    Hebrew scriptures, Christian Old Testament make PETA look timid.

    http://www.jewfaq.org/animals.htm

    As long as human safety is auctioned off so antibiotics enable Big Ag to Frankenstein away animal diversity, common sense leaders such as Will Allen will be forced out of the business. If financial accountants are so necessary, how do they fail to recognize the real costs of Big Ag?

    I’d “tap the breaks” on financial accountants until after watching “The Big Short.”

    The real economy, the part that matters, is the part that makes stuff. Finance/banking is supposed to be in service of that. We’ve got it backwards.

    Gresham’s law from the 16th century, “bad money drives out good.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham%27s_law

    When government allows cheaters to prosper, honest producers like Mr. Allen are driven out of business.

  5. Frank Schneiger says:

    John Casper, I think they are two different problems. In our corporate controlled plutocracy, what should be illegal is simply made legal, and, if it is still illegal, there is a “settlement” with no admission of guilt. The “little people” live in a different world, one where, as Lucy Cooper points out, you had better follow the rules or there are going to be major consequences.
    Another big difference, the army of lawyers and lobbyists that now support the plutocracy eliminate the dangers of temptation through “risk management.” For organizations like Growing Power, it is essential to put in place basic systems that all but eliminate temptation because temptation is hard to resist. The best examples are religious organizations, where, because they are doing God’s work, people believe they don’t need these systems, creating a world of temptation, and, as we know, people often give right in.

    John Casper, did you ever live on South 26th Street?

  6. John Casper says:

    Frank, excellent comment, thank you. I’m more pessimistic than you.

    “Billionaire Peter Thiel: ‘Single-digit millionaires’ have it so hard.”

    “Peter Thiel, verbatim: ‘If you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system.'”

    http://mashable.com/2016/10/31/billionaire-peter-thiel-single-digit-millionaires-no-justice/#WN0VmvgmuiqR

    Thiel backed Hogan’s suit against Gawker, as a way of getting back at them for outting him.

    Thiel supported Trump and was part of his transition team.

    Since “the internet never forgets,” I hope you won’t mind if I decline to respond to your question.

  7. Frank Schneiger says:

    John, okay, let me try to frame the question slightly differently, does 1008 South 26th Street ring a bell, and are you beyond high school age?

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