CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Central and Fairfax neighborhoods lost an estimated 100 jobs in 2012 when T&B Foundry closed a storied metal casting plant in a foreclosure process that left the eight-acre property vacant, shuttered and saddled with nearly $2 million in liens.
Now Cleveland Heights entrepreneur J. Duncan Shorey has a proposal to transform the plant at 2469 East 71st St. at Platt Avenue with an unusual mix of overlapping uses including a fish farm, an orchard, a studio center for artists, a farmers market, a cooking school and a computer server farm.
The Foundry Project, as he calls it, would encapsulate hot themes in Cleveland redevelopment including sustainability, urban agriculture and the arts as a place-making tool, plus the drive to build social equity by creating jobs in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Also part of the potential mix are federal and state historic tax credits, which Shorey said he hopes to pursue in the restoration of the century-old foundry building, which towers six stories over vacant lots just east of Woodland Cemetery.
“I have an exciting vision, and I have found a group of people who are receptive and who have agreed to help me pursue the vision,” Shorey said last week during an interview at the foundry site, which he acquired in March from the Cuyahoga Land Bank.
Shorey said he is close to securing financing on the first element of the project, a $4.5 million, 40,000-square-foot high-tech fish farm building in which he’d produce thousands of pounds a week of live branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass. A second 40,000-square-foot building would follow after the first is up and running, he said.
Shorey’s goal is to launch the fish farm late this year, in time to serve fresh branzino during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2016.
And he said he could get the computer data center, or server farm, up and running in six months, once a customer is identified.
The rest of the project could take longer, depending on financing and demand. Total investment in the project could run $15 million to $25 million, including $6 million to remove asbestos from the six-story T&B factory building and to restore it, Shorey said.
His investment so far, not counting the value of unpaid time spent by Shorey and his partners, amounts to $100,000, he said.
Shorey and partners including horticulturalist Jay Szabo and Curt Witchey, the chief financial officer for the project, have designed the project with a series of economic and environmental feedback loops that would knit the fish farm together with other elements of the project.
In sum, the project would:
– Use 5 percent of profits expected from fish farming, or $50,000 to $100,000 a year, to support the nonprofit studio center on three upper floors of the renovated T&B building.
– Tap into the fiber-optic trunk line buried next to the adjacent Norfolk & Southern rail line to provide high-speed Internet access for a new data center, or server farm, to be located on the property.
– Use waste heat from the server farm to provide energy and reduce utility bills for the fish farm.
– Use waste harvested from the fish farm to fertilize fruit grown in an orchard and greenhouse operation on site.
– Involve the neighborhood by providing jobs, a cooking school and a weekly farmers market to improve what Shorey called a food desert.
Skeptics might scoff at Shorey’s vision, but he has established a record of momentum and buy-in during the two-and-a-half years that he’s spent on the project.
The county land bank, for example, helped Shorey clear $1.8 million in liens against T&B held by PNC Bank and the state of Ohio for workman’s compensation claims, according to land bank lawyer Doug Sawyer.
Cuyahoga County’s Department of Economic Development spent nearly $39,000 on a Phase II environmental survey for the project, which Shorey said indicates that soils on the property are safe for farming.
And Shorey has secured letters of intent from Maximum Seafood, a Toronto-area live fish broker and from Sweetwater Springs Fish Farms in northern Indiana to buy a large percentage of his production of branzino.
Shorey said he’s sharing the letters with potential lenders and investors, along with letters of endorsement from Cleveland chefs Karen Small, owner of Ohio City’s Flying Fig restaurant and bar; and Doug Katz, chef-owner of Fire Food and Drink in Shaker Square.
“To have somebody locally doing aquaculture in our own backyard is something pretty exciting that I would support,” Katz said Monday. “I would certainly buy the fish [from Shorey] for my restaurant.”
Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, who has followed Shorey’s progress since 2013, said Monday, “I’m a believer.”
And Grafton Nunes, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art, the city’s independent, four-year art college, said Monday he was intrigued by Shorey’s proposal to turn the top three floors of the Foundry building into a studio center for artists with infrastructure including a glass-blowing furnace.
“It’s a worthwhile social and economic experiment, and I’m happy to work with him on it,” Nunes said of Shorey’s vision.
Shorey estimated that Ohio has roughly 300 fish farms, most of which are small, pond-based operations, he said.
The Rid-All Green Partnership at East 81st Street and Otter Road established a fish farm in recent years that produces tilapia, but a spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, declined to comment Monday on the farm’s weekly production and whether demand exists for a second, large-scale operation in the city.
Shorey, however, is convinced strong demand exists locally and across the Great Lakes region for the 500,000 pounds a year of branzino he ultimately plans to produce.
A lawyer and president and CEO of the Foundry Project and Northcoast Fish Farm LLC, Shorey learned about the T&B property during the mid-1990s when he served as environmental compliance officer for Oglebay Norton Corp., which bought the forging company in the 1970s and then later sold it back to its previous owners.
Shorey said T&B — formerly known as Taylor & Boggis — experienced difficulties in the 2000s when the customer base for its cast-metal products evaporated.
“It’s just the way the world’s economy is changing,” he said.
But he said he remained intrigued with the T&B property and began exploring ways to acquire it and put it back to productive use.
When asked what would happen if he only gets the first fish farm building built, and the rest of the property lies dormant, Shorey said that’s not his plan.
“I’m not going to let that happen,” he said. “That’s the short answer. The long answer is we’ve built what we think is a pretty robust business plan that we think will get us there.”
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