How to make a 93,500-square-foot green incubator more than just a ‘hippie spaceship’

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John Edel does not want his 93,500-square-foot sustainable wonderland to be just a “hippie spaceship from the North Side.”

Which might be a little tough, considering the converted Back of the Yards packing plant will be home to vegan cheese makers, an anaerobic digester, a kombucha brewery, and aquaponics farms growing lots and lots of kale.

Edel’s non-spaceship is The Plant, a food business incubator that seems more sustainable than nature itself. The soon-to-be net-zero energy consumption facility will use the waste products from each food producer to power the others.

Though Bubbly Dynamics, Edel’s company that owns The Plant and the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center in Bridgeport, is just beginning to break even, Edel says the project is still “perpetually broke” — that’s why he’s turned to Kickstarter to raise the $61,200 needed to transform a few of the building’s garages into an entryway that doesn’t make guests think they showed up at the wrong place. The campaign, which ends Monday, would pay for labor and materials for a plant-filled, sunny foyer to draw in customers and people in the neighborhood. As of press time, The Plant’s Kickstarter was 77 percent funded.

Edel purchased the Sustainable Manufacturing Center in 2002 while he was working as a set designer for TV shows. A year before the center became profitable, he quit his TV gig and focused on filling the former paint warehouse with fabricators, furniture makers and other green businesses.

In 2010, he bought what’s now The Plant — the old Peer Foods building and 3 acres of land — for $525,000. He estimates the completed renovation, using large amounts of salvaged and local materials, will be completed in two years, depending largely on volunteer work.

“This whole project is being done the hard way — kind of the Chicago beg-forgiveness, don’t-ask-permission way,” Edel says. “Studs Terkel called it the rough-tough way. By hand.”

Several tenants are up and running in The Plant: Peerless Bread and Jam, Pleasant House Bakery, a mushroom farm, three hydroponics farms, and two aquaponics farms that use fish waste to feed arugula, kale, and chard. Plans for expansive greenhouses, a museum, commercial brewery and more food producers, with a curated art display throughout the space, are still in the works.

Top that with $4 million for a heating and power system and an anaerobic digester, which will convert 30 tons of food waste each day into biogas that will power the entire facility, and the remaining $4 million for costs is, as Edel says, not too bad.

“That sounds like a lot of money, but this is almost a 100,000-square-foot building, so really that does not translate to a terribly large number: $40 a square foot,” Edel says. “Which is nothing.”

That funding is coming from profits from the first facility, income from tenants, and funding from the Chicago Community Loan Fund and the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

As The Plant reaches completion, the facility will combine programming already in place, like a farmers market in collaboration with the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, with gardening and healthy eating classes for people in the neighborhood. Edel estimates The Plant will create 140 permanent food jobs.

“This is an area that has seen continuous disinvestment since the big packing houses closed and stockyards closed,” he says. “It’s nice to see some jobs coming back. Because there’s a skilled workforce here that needs jobs.”

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