The Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) is celebrating its 10th year of owning and managing the Food Enterprise Center at 1201 N. Main St. in Viroqua. The nonprofit organization obtained ownership of the former NCR manufacturing facility on July 31, 2009, shortly after that business closed its doors, ending the jobs of 81 employees. With the help of federal and state grants and funding from local utilities, foundations and generous community members, VEDA renovated the building, turning the 100,000 square-foot facility into the Food Enterprise Center to provide business infrastructure to the 7 Rivers Region.
The re-purposed former abandoned property has become a model hub for entrepreneurs with custom-designed space for food and wellness-related business start-ups and expansions. Currently, there are 25 tenants renting space and employing at least 90 workers at the Food Enterprise Center. Businesses benefit from sharing common areas, meeting rooms, on-site technical assistance, one-to-one business counseling, access to resources, peer mentoring and the synergy of co-locating with like-minded people. A regional food distribution system has been developed at the Food Enterprise Center, benefiting area growers as well as our local economy. Local and area food products are shipped from there to retail, wholesale, co-op grocery stores and institutional markets that are local, regional, and national.
Overall, the Food Enterprise Center is nurturing an innovative, entrepreneurial environment and building wealth in the region. It is an economic development strategy based on community development, as a facility and a network that welcomes investors, grows food businesses and attracts entrepreneurs to a very cool place to locate a business. Throughout the years, the center has received much recognition including two visits to the White House, a Wisconsin Top Rural Development Initiative Award, hosting an international tour including representatives from 26 countries, inclusion in national magazines, and being cited as a national model of practice for multiple economic studies.
Now Growing For Good, a local business, is partnering with VEDA to help other businesses grow. We’re both “serving our community of entrepreneurs,” said Mary Christenson, who helps oversee Growing for Good as a member of the Board of Directors of Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School here in Viroqua.
A social business venture of the school, Growing For Good, among other things, serves as the nursery manager for Mark Shepard’s Forest Agriculture business in Viola, which supplies bare root edible woody nursery stock used for permaculture plantings. “This project was piloted in the spring of 2018, working side-by-side with Mark Shepard and his project manager Karen Vanek to learn the ropes,” explained Christenson. “It worked so well that they utilized the Food Enterprise Center space again this spring before vegetables began to come in for the Fifth Season Co-op.”
In April and May, the project involves packaging and shipping all the edible woody nursery stock that Forest Agriculture has sold over the past year via its website. According to Christenson, “With such a perishable product, it is an intense one to two months of work. The availability of space and refrigeration at the Food Enterprise Center made it possible to move the operation off the farm in Viola to Viroqua and streamline the process by doing everything at the Food Enterprise Center. Product is delivered, stored in a large cooler, packaged in a side room, and shipped directly from the shipping/loading dock,” she said.
The leftover sticks, she added, are potted up and sold through Growing For Good, making these plants available locally. Growing For Good is located in the former Flower Basket greenhouse business at 520 East Terhune Street, Viroqua, and is currently open by appointment. For more information on Growing For Good, call 608-637-8200 or go to the school’s website, pleasantridgewaldorf.org.
To learn more about the Food Enterprise Center and other VEDA activities to create wealth and prosperity in our region, go to our website veda-wi.org or call VEDA Executive Director Sue Noble at 608-638-8332.
Kathy Neidert is a member of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) Board of Directors.
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