Journal Opinion: Fresh Approach to Urban Ag

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Business Journal’s focus on local food in the July edition took us to The Landing in Sharon, Pa., the multitenant space in the former Westinghouse Electric Corp. complex leased by Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. The Sharpsville Avenue plant, which manufactured transformers from the 1920s to the mid-1980s, and torpedoes during World War II, is preparing to launch a new venture-food production.

Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. leases about 600,000 square feet – approximately half of the old factory – from the Winner Companies and operates it as The Landing, which it subleases. The development corporation has been working on launching the aquaponics operation since a local delegation took a trip to an aquaponics farm in Wisconsin several years ago. That visit inspired the group, which included Winner Companies executives Karen Winner Sed, Charles Miller and Jack Campbell, to envision a similar operation using space in The Landing. 

Bringing the aquaponics concept home – one that no doubt drew some side eyes when pitched to local leaders – was a long and winding road. Even with the decision to situate the operation on ground-floor space rather than on the third floor – which cut startup costs by more than half – the project is coming in at around $1.7 million. Funds have come from local foundations as well as the city of Sharon’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation. 

WestWinn Urban Ag, a Winner Companies subsidiary, will run the aquaponics operation, which initially will produce fish, lettuce and other greens and herbs.   

This initiative exemplifies out-of-the-box thinking to address several issues related to food access.

The pandemic exposed supply chain vulnerabilities that continue to affect food prices. Because of the environmental impact of shipping food long distances as well as bringing disease from other parts of the country, Americans have become more conscious of where and how the food they eat is produced. Then there are the benefits of feeling more connected to the community by purchasing food that is locally grown.

WestWinn Urban Ag plans to partner with Penn State University Shenango Campus to offer coursework involving aquaponics and for students to operate a marketplace that would sell items produced at The Landing.

Classes for the public are planned as well, giving people the opportunity to learn the aquaponics process and basic food production. Another goal, one that arises from the therapeutic nature of the work, is to provide employment for veterans and people in recovery from addictions. 

The Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. and WestWinn Urban Ag are to be commended for the unusual approach they’re taking to economic development and food access.

Good luck in making this grow. 

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.